Sandra Walsh’s mother started her in dance lessons to help overcome her shyness. She began studying dance at age 2, earning her first solo at 8 years of age, and starting to teach fellow students at 13. There weren’t a lot of dance competitions around at the time, but plenty of talent shows. She also performed on local TV. “There was a program called Dave Maynard’s Talent Showcase. Things were so different in those days—viewers would write their votes on postcard, and mail it in. If you won, you came back to be taped!”

Sandra is now President and Competition Director at Elite Dance Challenge, now celebrating its 7th year in business. The company’s growth has been something of a natural progression for her.

Around age 20, while earning a degree in Travel and Tourism, Sandra got involved in the Miss America pageant system to earn money for college, winning Miss Pawtucket and Miss Bristol County, and going on to compete for Miss Massachusetts and Miss Rhode Island. She had a moment of inspiration at 20, at a local talent competition sponsored by the Lions Club (a fundraiser for eye research) when all of the entries happened to be in dance. Watching the show, she thought: I could run this!

Sandra became a certified judge and ran local pageants, coaching young people (including her own younger sister, who won two cars at the ripe old age of six). After graduating from college, Sandra became a dance educator at Brown University, and in 1998 opened her own dance studio, with a competition team that traveled around the country competing and performing.

“One year we’d do a national competition, the next a studio trip for 200-300 people, and I was doing all the travel arrangements. We had 400 on our studio trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania.” She put on shows for Macy’s corporate office, big awards banquets, and performances by her active senior dancers.

“Suddenly it all began to fit, to wrap all this together—the dance part, and what I was doing on the travel side, booking venues, rooms.”

Elite Dance Challenge is still very much family affair. Sandra’s mother, Edna Strezsak, ran Merchandise Sales along with Nancy Hoskins, the mother of Vice President Meredith Hoskins. Known as “the two Moms,” Edna and Nancy took home the ADCC Industry Excellence Award for Merchandise/Sales in 2015. Sandra’s husband has handled lighting, audio and tech for their shows, and recently trained for his new job: tabulator. “We are very fortunate to be growing every year,” she says. “So we’re training staff, finding good people as we grow. This is the first year we’ve added double weekends, so we have to make sure those are covered.”

Her greatest joy as a competition owner? “Just being around the dancers. You understand what they’re going through, what the parents are going through, knowing that it’s your job to put them in the best light possible.”

“Last weekend I went offstage, and all these teenagers came up and asked if they could give me a hug—they said, ‘We feel like you’re a teacher at our studio!’ There were nine of them, and I gave them all a hug! They were so thrilled to get the ADCC Studio of Excellence award.”

Sandra believes ADCC programs are gaining strength, and providing a return on investment. “Studios are returning,” she says. “It’s building loyalty that helps us grow—it’s what we’re all trying to do in this industry. I’m hoping to see a lot of the same people every year, and I love the constant flow of meeting new people as well.”

“I love the ADCC—I feel like we’re starting to do more to shape the dance competition world, especially with the Studio of Excellence Award. Last year, we had to kind of explain what it was. Now the dancers and studios realize what it means, and they’re excited about it. We have teachers in tears every weekend, so happy to be recognized and appreciated for their years of service to dance.”

Sandra co-chairs this year’s Annual Meeting committee, and is excited about the future of The ADCC. She says, “I love being on the board, because you can really have an impact on the industry as a whole. I’m always looking for opportunities. I would like to grow the scholarship program, and through ADCC awards programs we can keep encouraging and recognizing excellence. I know we’re all our own individual businesses, but there are so many things we can work on as a group.”