Watch a ballet recital for students at the Johansen Olympia Dance Center and you’ll find yourself asking this question: How do the dance instructors at the studio manage to transform those teeny tiny and oh-so adorable four and five year olds flitting around the stage into advanced dancers en pointe?
“It is a process, one which we’re improving upon every year,” said Ken Johnson, Co-Director of the ballet school that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Walk into the lobby of the Olympia Dance Center during the academic school year, and you’d see the first step of their teaching process. It is a simple one — clusters of dancers, from the very young in pink leotards to pink skirts, to dancers a little older in lavender leotards, a little older in royal blue, burgundy and so on. For boys it is the same no matter what class they are in — white shirt, black tights.
Uniformity in leotard color by class is just one example of the many innovative programs implemented by Ken and Josie Johnson, the husband and wife duo that directs the ballet school. “We implemented leotard color by class a few years ago and our students and parents have really embraced it,” said Ken. “The kids love promotion to a new color every year and it makes it easier for our dance instructors to teach.”
The leotard color system is also a visual representation, of sorts, of the curriculum taught at the school, a curriculum that promotes fundamental skills at each level of dance allowing students to rapidly progress from year to year, instructor to instructor, from flitting three year olds to advanced dancers en pointe.
Before implementing the curriculum, the Johnsons attended the American Ballet Theatre in New York to receive certification to teach the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum, from the primary level through level five. The curriculum consists of a comprehensive set of age-appropriate, outcome-based guidelines to provide the highest quality ballet training to dance students of all ages and skill levels.
“The certification process was intense and rigorous and not everyone who was accepted into the program made it through. When we completed the program we had a huge sense of accomplishment,” said Josie. The Johnson couple returned to Olympia and implemented the curriculum across all ballet classes at the studio.
“The American Ballet Theatre curriculum is a clean and healthy technique that enables dancers to dance a variety of styles. The instructors who designed the curriculum have travelled all over the world and have had the opportunity to see what types of instruction work and what doesn’t. This curriculum gives our dancers a strong foundation that will allow them to dance a variety of styles,” said Ken.
In addition to dance, the certification process involves instruction in child nutrition, child development and physical therapy. “We use this curriculum to give our instructors a road map for what their students need to accomplish at the end of the week, month and school year. Yet at the same time, teachers have an incredible amount of flexibility in how they reach those goals,” said Josie. “We know that at the end of each year all our students in each grade level will have received the instruction they need to move on to the next level with outstanding technique and skill.”
The Johnsons know quite well that terms like turnout, technique and rigor are not appealing to aspiring ballerinas age three and four. Younger children dream of pink tutus and pirouettes. The Center’s pre-ballet teachers have trained at the nationally renowned Creative Dance Center which features an innovative training system that is great for the kids developmentally.
The Johnsons also recently discovered the Angelina Ballerina Dance Academy curriculum, which compliments the current syllabus in place. “The program creator, Beverly Spell, has a great understanding of where kids need to be at that young age. The structure of the curriculum creates a learning environment seamlessly integrated with pure fun,” said Josie.
Originally created by author Katharine Holabird in 1983 as a series of books, the wildly popular dancing mouse even has a musical in New York City. The Johansen Olympia Dance Center joins more than 120 studios throughout the United States and Canada offering weekly classes based on the dancing mouse. The school offers a 34-week program inspired by the animated series Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps. The classes focus on one storybook per month.
The Johnsons were able to first implement a shortened version of the program over the summer during a week-long day camp for young dancers. Just picture groups of girls dressed head to toe in pink, complete with mouse ears, led through a series of simple ballet moves.
With these innovative training programs, the Johnsons have received great feedback from Master Teachers they bring to the studio from around the region, including the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Oregon Ballet Theatre, University of Washington and Cornish College of the Arts. Josie said, “The instructors that we bring in to teach our Master Classes tell us over and over how impressed they are with our students. These instructors can teach anywhere, yet they come back to Olympia because they enjoy these kids, their positive attitude and their skill.”
For more information and to view the class schedule, visit www.olympiadancecenter.com.