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STILL ON HER TOES



Published: Sun, June 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Dance instructor Judy Katsaras has never hired outside help: Her teachers all are former students.

By ASHLEY POWERS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

BOARDMAN -- Bada, bump, bing.

Judy Katsaras is beaming. She has just released her leg from its sky-high position, her toes stretched toward the ceiling, her body momentarily clenched in a vertical split.

She even hummed her own backbeat: bada, bump, bing.

Katsaras shakes her headful of snipped, dark hair, smoothing the aqua, short-sleeved blouse encasing her lithe frame.

She's pretty spry for any age, let alone 61.

Bada-bing, indeed.

Her vitality, she says, stems from plenty of pli & eacute;s and pirouettes, with a few shuffle-ball-changes thrown in. Katsaras, the force behind the Judy Conti dance studios, is celebrating four decades as an area brand name for aspiring Baryshnikovs and Radio City Rockettes.

Speaking from her Boardman studio -- one of four bearing her maiden name -- Katsaras contemplated her staying power by peering at her walls crammed with pictures of now-professional dancers, girls with two left feet and even a Miss America contestant.

A full life: "I love my studio. I love my teachers. I love everything I do, but it's not my life," she says. "My family and my home and my friends would be.

"And that's probably why I don't feel like I've been a slave to my business. That I ... ugh." She contorts her oval face and throws her slim arms back to mimic a frazzled instructor fed up with dance.

But a tormented teacher she is not. It's 5 p.m., and about 20 8- to 10-year-old bundles of energy, clustered shoulder to shoulder on all fours, are chanting "Who, who, who, who" -- the refrain from the Baha Men's omnipresent "Who Let The Dogs Out."

Their costumes for their upcoming recital -- black leotards covered with furry animal print patches and floppy ears of the same material -- were crafted by their beloved Miss Judy.

These children, their eyes shining as they leap and spin and almost collide, are Katsaras' products, as integral to her success as pasta is to an Italian ristorante.

"Point your toes," Katsaras patiently urges, smiling and tapping her right foot. "Turn. Show your teeth."

She pauses, and spotting a girl offbeat, launches into what could be her millionth rendition of, "ONE, two, three, four, five, six."

Instilling pride: "They're not going to be dancers," Katsaras says of most of her students. Most take dancing so they can be graceful, or have poise, or stand up straight and not be shy to be in the school play or on the speech team, she said.

"The ones that do not have any talent whatsoever," she continues, "we want them to enjoy it as much and feel good about themselves."

It's a mantra she instills in her instructors, all of whom are former students, many of them in their 40s and 50s. Katsaras demands the name Judy Conti be associated with grace, class and kindness.

"I wouldn't hire you if I thought you were mouthy or rude or crude. I don't have those kind of girls," she says.

Fulfilled a dream: Although she's added and subtracted classes and studios -- the latest offerings include a summer dance camp and a social etiquette workshop -- her livelihood is strikingly similar to what she envisioned as a student at East High School. Then, she would daydream in her sewing and drama classes, doodling "Judy Conti Dance Studio" in her notebooks.

By 21, the name was plastered on the front of a building on Southern Boulevard and Indianola Road, the product of eight years as an assistant teacher and almost as many summers in New York City dancing professionally.

"That's many years of answering the telephone, of planning the recitals, of seeing how they order the costumes and the programs, the tickets, the scenery, everything that goes with it. So basically, all you had to do was get your building and set up your music," she says.

A year later, she married "a very wonderful, gorgeous, handsome, wonderful man who I absolutely adore." Dennis Katsaras, a retired accounting teacher from Campbell, still checks her books and fixes a light or two when needed. His support was essential in rearing their children, Kim, now 34, and Scott, 30, both of Miami, and enticing her to stay in the area.

"There's no place like home," she explains, stealing a line from her namesake, actress Judy Garland.

Katsaras nods for emphasis, content in her surroundings of pink smiley faces and feather boas. If her body allows her in 10 years, she says she'll take the stage to celebrate her golden anniversary.

"After 40 years, I guess I found my niche, huh?"

apowers@vindy.com




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