For more than 50 years, Debbie Heims has shared her love of dance with students in and around Adams County.
Her student recital, to be held today at Gettysburg College’s Kline Theatre, will be the last she’ll attend as an instructor.
Heims, or “Ms. Debbie” as she’s known to her dancers, is retiring and closing her Encore Star Productions Dance Studio, holding close the memories and relationships built with hundreds of students over five decades.
Heims grew up dancing with the Gettysburg Ballet Guild, under the direction of Joyce Cadle. After Cadle and her husband retired to Georgia, Heims decided to take up the teaching mantle on her own. She was 13.
A member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Emmitsburg, she approached Father Louis Storms about using a room at the old parish high school to begin teaching dance. With his approval, she installed 12-by-12-foot mirrors and ballet barres handmade by a community member.
As she and her cache of students grew over the years, Heims’ studio moved many times: To above Stavros Pizza in Emmitsburg; then into Gettysburg behind what is now Battlefield Brew Works’ downtown tap room; to a space on Buford Avenue; and finally to her present location along York Road in Straban Township.
Heims traveled to New York, Chicago, and other major cities to train with the best, and taught nearly every genre of dance, including ballet, jazz, tap, lyrical and modern, as well as basic tumbling.
Most of Heims’ dancers began as young children and stayed with her studio throughout their school years, she said. Some have moved on to other pursuits after graduation, but others have pursued dance in college and professionally, completing dance programs at institutions such as Marymount Manhattan College in New York, or performing on cruise ships, at theme parks, or at Radio City Music Hall.
“When people come to me, they expect perfection,” she said. “My standards are very, very high.”
However, Heims said she’s always tried to run a “mom and pop” studio instead of a “dynasty,” focusing on helping her students develop character as well as dance skills.
“I try to lift them up,” she said, instilling self-respect and helping show her students the importance of being a “good, kindhearted person.”
In part, Heims says she’s stepping away to devote more time to her family and to her own health. A breast cancer survivor, she’s been in remission for five years. She and her husband live on a bucolic property east of Gettysburg, and she spends three days per week with her grandson in Westminster, Md.
“My grandson needs me, my family needs me, you can’t have too many irons in the fire,” she said.
As she’s dismantled her studio over the past few weeks, she’s donated nearly every part of it to local organizations or to her own students, from the flooring to the mats and barres, she said.
“A piece of my legacy is going out into the community of my students and families,” she said. “I told them, ‘no matter where you go, I’ll be watching you.’”
When she announced that the studio was closing, both students and their parents’ shed tears, Heims said. She expects today’s recital to be especially emotional.
“It’s not the end, it’s the beginning. It’s a new beginning, not just for them, but for me too. I’m at peace with what I’m doing.”
Perhaps in order to share her love without being overcome with emotion, Heims wrote a letter that she planned to give to her students this week. It reads in part: “Over 50-plus years, I have loved seeing the transformation in these dancers’ lives. I have loved the connection that we built together. We have bonded like family because we are all in the same situation, working on our goals. I believe with confidence that you can do anything you want. Believe in yourself!”
“Find what you love and let it thrill you,” she continues. “Doing what you love is an important part of a life well-lived. During this time, lift others up and make a difference in the world and leave a lasting impact.”