It was 1954 when Pattie Beller first taught dance to students in her parents’ basement. She was just 13.
By age 15, she had 75 students. When she died March 25 at age 73, she left behind a studio in Overland Park with more than 700 students and a legacy of thousands more who had passed through its doors. The studio remains open and is run by her daughter, Diane Fessler.
Beller built a business that became a well-known dance school with competitive dance and gymnastics programs. Being a student there was about more than tutus and fancy flips.
“She loved people, and she just was so interested in what everyone wanted to do. She cared deeply about each one of the kids and wanted what was best for them,” said Sharon Bugler.
As an 8-year-old, Bugler took lessons from Beller, who was just 18 at the time. Years later, Bugler returned to Beller Dance and Gymnastics as a teacher.
“I have a lot of second-generation students,” Bugler said. “I think that’s a huge testament to what the adults got when they came here.”
In the last year or so, as Beller became more impaired by ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Bugler spent many nights a weeks at Beller’s home, taking care of her and enjoying quiet chats.
Beller’s good sense of humor never left her. When Beller’s daughter, Diane, asked her to tap out a message to indicate what she wanted for something, Beller tapped out a shuffle ball change, a tap-dancing move, with her fingers.
Many of her friends remember her distinct laugh.
“She was still cracking jokes and being funny the whole time she was ill,” Bugler said.
Although Beller had two daughters and two stepsons at home, they shared her with all of the students at the studio.
“Whether they were in the studio, the gym or the waiting room, there was always a moment where (each person) got to be the star; she gave everybody a spotlight,” said Terri Turner, another former student who returned to teach gymnastics.
Patty Marquart Ikenberry recalled a 1961 dance recital, when, as a second-grader, she had a problem with her shoes and had to join the dance number late.
“I struggled to get my sweaty feet into the tap shoes, and laughter from the audience grew as the rest of the class began to dance,” Ikenberry said. “Backstage, Pattie took the time to console my tears of embarrassment, and I never feared another recital.”
Even with hundreds of kids at her studio, Bugler said that Beller’s “prodigious memory” never failed her. She remembered names and details about everyone, even years later.
“The day I think I know it all is the day I should hang up my tutu. There’s always more to learn,” said former student Shelley Harmison-Week. “Pattie instilled that in me. She never made me feel inadequate; she made me feel strong.”
Harmison-Week became a professional dancer and now teaches students with disabilities. Beller had a strong influence on her development as a teacher and as a person, she said.
“She pushed without ever being unkind,” Harmison-Week said. “She just had this magical way of getting the best out of all of her students. … I wonder if a lot of young people don’t have someone like my Pattie.”
Beller was a keen businesswoman, but knew when to put people first, Bugler said.
“We had kids from very troubled homes,” Bugler said. “When it was hard to pay for a costume or tuition, Pattie would find a way.”
In addition to her involvement in the dance community, Beller felt so passionately about animal adoption that she asked that there be pets available for adoption at her funeral. Although that wasn’t possible, she did get her wish to have everyone exit the service to “Boogie Fever.”
She also stayed involved with the community through the Community Church of Shawnee Mission, where she served on the board; as a recovery room volunteer at Shawnee Mission Medical Center, and as a volunteer at a soup kitchen in the Argentine community of Kansas City, Kan.