By Susan Sutton
At first glance, the Children’s Dance Foundation seems like a regular dance studio offering ballet, modern dance, jazz, tap, student ensemble, drama and musical theatre for all ages and abilities.
But beyond the brisk movement of ballet shoes and the sound of live musical accompanists lies an artistic spirit at the 36-year-old dance foundation that inspires and connects many local children and families.
Take for example the excitement of one 6-year-old resident of Grace House Ministry, a Christian home for girls from crisis backgrounds, who regularly attends classes at the Children’s Dance Foundation. “Even when class is over, she still dances around the classroom by herself,” said Arlene Godwin, education coordinator at Grace House.
The 6 year old and other girls from the Grace House visit the Children’s Dance Foundation each week to blend in with kids from traditional homes and to learn to dance and act and to have opportunities like other kids their age. “We like this partnership because it’s an opportunity for us to expose our kids to cultural activities that many have not had before,” Godwin said.
Special funding enables the nonprofit Children’s Dance Foundation to provide scholarships for kids who might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn dance or drama. There are other partners like Grace House, and as long as funding is available, Diane Litsey, the foundation’s executive director, said the program will continue to support and grow this outreach effort. “Community is who we are and what we do everyday,” Litsey said.
The Children’s Dance Foundation was founded in 1975 by Jennie Robertson to teach ballet to young children. She quickly learned that a traditional style of teaching was not the best approach for younger kids – it was too structured and didn’t allow for wiggling and silliness. So, Robertson began to teach using stories, books and more creative movements to harness who these kids were as children and to lay the foundation for a lifetime love of dance.
Robertson’s new style of teaching was a success, and the benefit for students today is the variety of art being taught and enjoyed. Ballet is still core to what they teach, but ballet naturally begets jazz and modern dancing, which lend themselves to acting, which in turn opens the door for musical theatre, making for a wide range of courses. “The core mission of the Children’s Dance Foundation is to get people moving, being joyful and being creative. Everything comes from that,” Litsey said.
The foundation employs a staff of teachers who have a depth of experience or degrees in dance, music and theatre. To elevate the quality of the classroom experience, the foundation provides a live pianist to accompany the teacher whenever possible. “There is a wonderful collaborative flow and a whole different energy to the room with a live musician,” Litsey said.
There are many reasons kids and adults enjoy the Children’s Dance Foundation. Kendall and Cate Fowler have taken multiple classes at the foundation. Kendall is a seventh-grader at Homewood Middle School and is currently taking an acting class that was preceded by two years of musical theater. “I like that I know all of the kids in my class and our teacher is really tolerant of all of our talking,” Kendall said.
Kendall’s younger sister, Cate, a fourth-grader at Edgewood Elementary, takes jazz and has two years of ballet already behind her. She said she has made many new friends and says that her teacher Ms. Alisa makes dancing more fun.
The Children’s Dance Foundation also travels around the city to take dance to pre-kindergarten kids or children who have special needs or disadvantages. They stop at organizations such as the Bell Center for Early Intervention and the Samford Children’s Learning Center. “This type of outreach is the heart and soul of what we do,” Litsey said.
Math in Motion, a school touring program, travels all over the state and beyond to teach kindergarteners through sixth graders about math using music, movement and everyday objects and to ultimately share their love of dance. The math program has been such a success; they’ve added a new program called Magic Circle which uses hoops, loops, narrative and of course movement to teach. This program is appropriate for young kids up to eighth grade.
The foundation also offers classes for 3- and 4-year-old boys and is a popular spot for birthday parties. Throughout the year, they host and sponsor special events such as the Alabama Dance Festival, a Mad Hatter fundraising party and Two to Tango, where folks can learn the tango while supporting community programs offered at the foundation.
The foundation also allows community artists to use their workspace. Partnership curriculums include Irish Step Dancing, Flamenco, Community Drum Circles and much more.
The foundation is gearing up for summer. This time of year, they keep kids learning and moving through weeklong themed camps. Their StageDoor Youth Theatre Company is currently working on a production of “John Lennon and Me;” performances will take place in late June. They’re almost ready to register for fall. Saturday classes and classes for young children fill up fast, so watch the web site closely for signups to open.
The Children’s Dance Foundation is located at 1715 27th Court South in downtown Homewood, just north and west of the main street shops. For more information, visit www.childrensdancefoundation.org.