HALLOWELL — When Vicki Gilbert started her own dance company at 17 years old, she had no plans to make it her career, and the studio was in her garage.

Now, 40 years later, Gilbert said Vicki’s School of Dance is still going strong and she has no plans to retire.

To mark the occasion, Gilbert, 57, and her husband, Mike, will celebrate the school’s 40th anniversary with a “40 Years of Dance” recital Saturday and Sunday at Cony High School. Tickets cost $15 for the shows, which are scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.

“It’s a big deal, because every year, I’ve said, ‘I can’t believe I did this another year,'” Gilbert said. “But here I am, still loving it, and I’m pretty excited to be able to keep the business running.”

Normally, Gilbert said, she chooses a specific theme for each year’s recital, but she wanted to do something different for the 40th edition. She said she went back and chose her favorite routines and dances from the past 39 years, and those will be the ones performed at this weekend’s shows. She even has almost 50 past students coming back to perform in several numbers.

“I’ve had so much fun working with them,” she said.

Jenn Reny Smith, whose children Xavier, 10, and Rheigan, 7, attend the dance class, said the experience is more like having “another family.”

“My daughter has always loved to dance, and as soon as we finished the first act of that (first) recital, I knew she would love it here. She loves being at dance,” Smith said. “Over the summer Mike (Gilbert) got to meet my son, and I swear it was a few minutes of Mike showing a few dance moves and Xavier just got it like he’d been dancing for years. Now he’s doing hip-hop and loves it.”

Becky Jenkins, whose 9-year-old daughter, Abby, attends, echoed the feeling of family.

“Coming back here, after being a student myself, is like coming back to a big family that I never left,” Jenkins said. “Vicki brings out the best in each one of her students.”

She added, “It is exciting to watch my daughter grow on stage in each performance.”

THINK YOU CAN DANCE?

When Gilbert opened her first studio in her garage during her senior year of high school, she had 18 students, and eventually her school grew to a point that she had nearly 350 children a week taking dance classes. She estimates she’ll have 150 to 175 students on stage this weekend, and she said enrollment has fluctuated but remained steady enough to keep the business going. She estimated she’s taught several thousand students since the studio opened in 1977.

“When I started, there wasn’t as much available for kids, but now there are so many activities,” Gilbert said. “Parents are struggling to let their children do every activity they want.”

Gilbert said it’s such a challenge for parents to manage all their children’s activities that recently a child was left at the studio for more than 90 minutes because her parents forgot that she was doing dance and not one her siblings’ activities.

Gilbert said the business thrived in its infancy because there were only a few dance schools in the area. Now dancing has become even more popular because of all the television dance competitions and reality shows — such as “Dance Moms” and “So You Think You Can Dance” — and plenty of children are interested in the activity.

“All you really need is two feet, a room and some music,” she joked.

Having so much dance-related content on TV can be challenging for a dance instructor, Gilbert said. Not every student is going to be a world-class dancer, but try telling that to their parents.

“Sometimes there are some parents who think their children are going to come in and look like a professional in a short period of time,” she said. “Though occasionally, there is somebody who comes through the door who is that incredible.”

In her 40 years, Gilbert has taught some dancers who stay for a year or two, and she’s taught dancers who dance from age 3 until they graduate from high school. She said she doesn’t teach the children to think they’re going to be professionals; dancing is the vehicle Gilbert uses to impart life lessons and teach skills that will be useful throughout a student’s life.

“They learn how to be on stage in front of people without being completely petrified, they develop lifelong friendships, they learn to work as a team and they develop confidence and discipline,” she said. “It’s more than just learning how to do dance stuff.”

The dance school’s Facebook page is peppered with comments and five-star reviews from parents and former students talking about the experience they’ve had with Gilbert, her husband and her staff.

Lauren St. Pierre, of Augusta, said in a May 27 post that she misses the Gilberts and can’t help but remember her dance experiences every time she passes the studio, at 170 Central St. in Hallowell. St. Pierre especially remembered dancing to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a glow-in-the-dark routine.

40 YEARS OF CHANGES

Gilbert said the business certainly has changed over the last 40 years, especially because of increased cost for dance shoes, attire and competitions. She started charging $2 for a one-hour class and now charges $15; for reference, a gallon of gas cost about 62 cents in 1977, and now the average price in Maine is $2.15.

The other big change is that children and parents must make decisions on what they are going to do. They can’t do gymnastics, swimming, softball, basketball and dancing all at the same time.

“We have a lot of kids who stop after one year while they go try another activity,” she said. “Parents are being pulled in 25 different directions.”

Gilbert said after the Olympics, students leave dance instruction to go try skating or gymnastics because they saw it on TV for two weeks during the winter or over the summer.

“I think it’s great, because everybody should try a bunch of things until they find what they truly love,” she said.”

Of all the different dance varieties, tap is Gilbert’s favorite style to teach and favorite to watch. Contemporary and jazz dance are most students’ favorites, but not Gilbert’s. She said she doesn’t even remember doing contemporary dance because it wasn’t something she performed or taught. Her daughter, Shanay, teaches the studio’s contemporary dance classes.

“This old lady doesn’t teach contemporary dance,” she said. “I watch them and I know at my age now I can’t do it, and I don’t know if I could’ve done it back then.”

While she has no immediate plans to slow down, Gilbert said she is starting to groom her daughter to take over the business eventually. Shanay Gilbert is a student at the University of Maine and is majoring in kinesiology and exercise science with a minor in dance.

She hopes to keep the studio running for at least another 10 years for many reasons, including being able to celebrate a 50th anniversary. She admits, though, that it’s tough because every year, she gets older while her students stay the same age.

“My daughter is starting to learn the ropes, and every year she’s learning more and more,” Gilbert said. Shanay Gilbert has been dancing with her mother since she was age 2, and Vicki Gilbert said her daughter wants to run all parts of the business except doing the books.

“I told her as long as I can still see,” Vicki Gilbert said Friday before meeting her daughter to run errands ahead of this weekend’s performances, “I’ll be around to help her.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

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Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ