HACKENSACK, N.J. — For Hackensack sisters Shatanya Shaw-Elliott and Shama Elliott, dance is a shield.
The duo grew up in a rough Harlem neighborhood and competed in street dance competitions as a way to avoid the violence and crime that surrounded them.
"It kept us focused and gave us something to look forward to," Shaw-Elliott told Daily Voice. "I don't know where we would be if we didn't have that outlet."
Years later, the sisters, now 43, run a nonprofit dance studio in Hackensack to provide other girls who come from difficult backgrounds with that same outlet.
"We know where these girls come from because we were there once," Shaw-Elliott said. "They need this positive force to help them along."
Shaw-Elliott, a medical billing specialist and Elliott, a paralegal, opened Blossoms Dance Studio at 685 Main Street in 2006. In 2008, they changed to a nonprofit business model in order to make their classes more affordable.
"We don't think dance should be a luxury," Shaw-Elliott said.
The sisters coach 70 girls between the ages of two and thirteen in ballet, jazz, hip-hop and lyrical dance on weeknights and Saturdays.
The older dancers compete as a team in competitions around northern New Jersey. Blossoms also offers a youth mentoring program called "Girls Like Us," which encourages students to try hard in school.
Shaw-Elliott said nearly half of their students come from low-income families and almost all of them come from single-parent homes.
Now that they have been around for 10 years, the sisters are starting to see the fruits of their labors.
"Girls who we coached way back when are coming back from college and thanking us for the impact we had on them," Shaw-Elliott said. "It's nice to think that we inspired them to reach for the stars."
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