By Lisa Snowden-McCray, Special to the AFRO

When Willia Bland decided to start a school to teach Baltimore girls etiquette and self-esteem back in 1968, she was 43 and the nation was in turmoil.

“She started her business after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and she started it because she wanted to empower young girls in her community,” her granddaughter and namesake Willia Montague tells the AFRO. Montague, an accomplished dancer in her own right, is running the business now.

Willia Bland was the pioneering founder of Maryland-based Flair Studio. She died in February. (Courtesy photo)

Flair was at one time the only Black modeling agency in Maryland. In 1974, the studio expanded into Flair Studio of Dance and Modeling. The business went from Bland’s home, to the basement of Mondawmin Mall (I just thought everybody grew up in a mall,” Montague remembers), where they stayed for 20 years. Today they are based in Catonsville in Baltimore County.

Bland died February 18, at the age of 92. She’d already been battling dementia and had contracted the flu.

Bland was the spirit of Flair and a pioneer in her own right. Well into her advanced age, she could be spotted at the school and at recitals full of energy and joy – making sure that the dancers looked just so, and that things were running smoothly.

Montague remembers her grandmother as strong, powerful, and feminine.

Willia Montague, Willia Bland’s granddaugther, has taken over Flair Studio following founder. (Courtesy photo)

“My grandmother was a lady. Like, whatever the definition of a lady is, she was. You never heard her curse, you never heard her talk out of turn of another person,” she remembers. “It didn’t matter whether you were her own natural child or just a child on the street, you were to carry yourself in her presence as if she gave birth to you herself. If a girl came into the studio with her shoulders slumped and gum in her mouth, she told them to turn right back around, spit that gum out, come back in here with your head up, and then we can talk.”

Montague says she always knew that it would eventually be her job to run the business.

“I just didn’t know when,” she says. “I knew there was going to be a day that my grandmother wasn’t going to be here, my mom wasn’t going to be there and it was all me.”

Montague herself danced at Flair before going to the Baltimore School for the Arts, and then leaving to attend the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. She danced in the Billy Joel musical “Movin’ Out,” and with the Philadelphia Dance Company. She just finished dancing in the Broadway hit “The Lion King” last August. Now, she is back home. Specifically, in the home her grandmother once lived in. Now, she says she feels echoes of here everywhere.

“Sometimes when I’m in the studio late at night by myself and I’m mopping the floors or vacuuming or just going over things that need to happen, I just remember seeing my grandmother do this and never complaining, never saying ‘oh I just wish I could go home.’ She loved it and she instilled it, it’s a part of my makeup. It’s in my blood. Thank goodness I have her as a model.”

She says now she’s focused on picking up where her grandmother left off and moving the studio forward.

“We’re just in the midst of like recovering from my grandmother’s sudden death and just moving forward and keeping her legacy alive so we still have the dance and modeling program at Flair and we’re going to introduce drama into the program in the fall,” she says. Their 50th Anniversary recital is June 30 at New Town High School in Owings Mills.

It’s a lot of work. But, Montague says she keeps close to her a conversation she had with her grandmother shortly before her death.

“When she was transitioning, I was like, ‘are you sure you want to go? Because Flair turns 50 this year.’ And she opened her eyes and she said ‘Fifty?’ I said ‘yeah,’ I was like, ‘isn’t that so great?’ She said ‘OK. Now we can stop. We did it. We made it to 50.’ I said ‘no! We have to continue!’ she said ‘no, no.’ I said, ‘well I’m going to continue it.’ And she said ‘OK.’”