The music is blaring loudly, sunlight is streaming in through windows that reach toward the ceiling and women of varying ages, shapes and fitness abilities are moving in rhythm on the shiny hardwood floors. Wiping sweat from their faces and chugging water from environmentally-friendly containers, they appear to be having a good time.

Studio 44 Dance and Fitness Center, located above Banana Republic on Main Street in Westport, is one of the local studios where professional dancer M.J. Choi teaches her popular jazz funk and hip hop classes.

At Studio 44, which opened in mid-April, her "Freestyle Dance" class attracts women and men ranging in age from those in college to "seniors."

"We are like a little community here and we welcome everybody," said Studio 44 owner Candy McCarthy.

A devotee of dance, McCarthy decided to open the business because "the timing seemed right," she said. "I saw the potential here. I feel that I am able to provide an environment for health, fitness and community."

Bob LeRose, president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association, is pleased to welcome a new member to the downtown business scene. He said that although the national retailers operating on Westport's Main Street are vital to the community, it's nice to see local entrepreneurs "diving in" and opening up independent businesses, too.

"These types of businesses are very important because they bring people to the downtown Westport to people to the downtown Westport area," he said.

Growing up in Shelton, McCarthy always loved dancing. In fact, her sister also owns a dance studio. Four years ago McCarthy began taking classes with Sue Benton, founder of Chi Fitness. Benton is now assuming the role of Studio 44's artistic director and head instructor.

"I followed Sue to wherever she taught classes," McCarthy said. "I liked the fun atmosphere that was present."

Benton explained that the classes are unique in that people from all different dance and exercise levels may attend each class.

"You may have a professional dancer standing next to a beginner," she explained.

Classes are offered in jazz, ballet, tap and Broadway dance, as wellas kickboxing, body sculpting, yoga and belly dancing.

A few weeks ago, Studio 44's Latin dance instructor, Eddie Villanueva, led a demonstration of the latest fitness craze, Kangoo Jump.

"It's the hottest thing in L.A. and Miami," explained McCarthy. "Eddie is going to be teaching a class here starting in July. No one else is doing this in Connecticut."

People interested in participating will be required to purchase the special shoe/boots that are worn during the exercise class. For more information,

go to, said McCarthy.

Although Choi resides in Stratford, she frequently travels to Manhattan to teach classes and audition for dance roles. As a performer, she has been part of the opening act for rapper and actor Ludacris and was a featured dancer in Danny Aiello and Dr-Rap Hassan's music videos.

Choi said that she especially likes teaching at the Westport dance studio, though, because of the many adult participants.

"Usually you see a lot of teenagers taking hip hop and jazz classes," she said. "This is the only place I know of where adults could have a chance to explore their dance world, though."

She also added that she strives to make her classes relaxed and fun.

"I will mix up my style depending on who is in the crowd," Choi said.

Heather Hychko, of Fairfield, took her first class at Studio 44 this week with M.J., and she said that she plans on returning for more.

"M.J. is a great teacher because she breaks all of the routines down for us," said Hychko. "She is high-energy and makes you want to just let go and have fun."

As a physical education major at Southern Connecticut State University, Hychko, 21, is always looking for different ways to be fit and healthy.

"It's a great cardio workout and you don't even realize that you are exercising," Hychko said. "You use a lot of your body's core when you are dancing, too."

Benton said that Studio 44 thrives on its open, non-judgmental environment. Fostering a low key ambiance, clients are encouraged to linger before and after class and partake in the complementary tea, coffee and fruit available in its café.

"We want people to dance and to sweat and have a good time," Benton said. "It doesn't matter what you look like. We don't judge anyone here."

When classes are not in session, McCarthy will soon unveil plans to host special events at the facility, which overlooks Main Street.

"It's a wonderful space and I plan to utilize it to its fullest," she said. "I envision hosting all kinds of special parties, including bar mitzvahs, baby showers and fundraising benefits here."

Entrance to Studio 44 is gained through its back entrance on Elm Street. For more information, call 203-454-1444 or log onto