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Schools With Staying Power | Hard Work and Humble Beginnings

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One family’s commitment to dance keeps Dance Generation going strong

By Steve Sucato

From humble beginnings and homemade costumes, through decades of new dance trends and new family members, Dance Generation in Montgomery, Alabama, has remained true to its hardworking, high-striving roots.

Loree Atkins passed down her philosophy of 'dance as a discipline' to daughter Janice Rnsome and grandaughter Shawn Ransom Parker. (Photo courtesy Dance Generation)

“My mother always told me, and our students: ‘If you are going to do something, do it right. Give it all you’ve got—otherwise, you are just wasting your time,’ ” says Janice Ransom, a second-generation co-owner of the studio.

At one time, Ransom ran the studio with her mother, Loree Atkins, who founded the school in 1937. Today Ransom and daughter Shawn Ransom Parker continue to teach a new generation of students, remaining true to the family’s commitment to dance as a discipline, not just a fun hobby.

It all began with Loree, 7, and her older sister, Julia, on the family farm in rural Tallassee, Alabama, in the 1930s. With no television and few other forms of entertainment or educational enrichment available, the girls’ mother signed them up for weekly dance lessons from a traveling teacher. Soon afterward, looking for more advanced training, the girls stopped taking classes in Tallassee and began at a school in Montgomery (a 30-mile trip by car each way). They practiced in their yard under the tutelage of their switch-wielding mother, always a believer in a strong work ethic.

The family quickly committed to dance. When Loree Atkins’ teacher offered to take her promising student to New York for a few weeks of advanced training, Loree’s father sold two cows to pay for the trip.

Loree was only 9 and Julia 12 when they began teaching tap, ballet, and acrobatics to other children in the basement of a shoe repair shop. The Atkins Sisters (as they and their fledging studio were known back then) held their first recital in 1937. The girls choreographed the routines and all 20 of their students, including their brothers, wore handmade costumes.

Atkins remembers those simpler days. “Everyone taught by piano music back then,” she says. “Records and record players were a rarity. We did all of our acrobatic tricks on the floor because we did not have mats.”

As the sisters got older, they continued to teach while traveling and performing with a swing band at clubs in the South. They also performed for troops stationed in Montgomery and for a visiting President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and were one of the opening acts for a Hank Williams concert.

After Julia got married the sisters went their separate ways. Julia started a dance studio in Prattville, Alabama, while Loree stayed on in Montgomery, taking sole ownership of the sisters’ original studio and renaming it Loree Atkins School of Dance. The studio offered classes in ballet, tap, and baton twirling. Students performed in community shows and appeared weekly on a Montgomery television show called Dancing Dolls, says Atkins.

Atkins’ philosophy—dance as a discipline, not a hobby—was reflected in her studio’s outlook and procedures and was passed down to her daughter and granddaughter as they grew up in the studio environment.

“My mother had a crib at the studio and I would be tended by a sitter or the office secretary,” says Ransom. “I remember riding my tricycle up and down the sidewalk while my mother was teaching. It was the same for my daughter when she was born. We grew up in the business.”

By junior high, Ransom was teaching select classes; after high school graduation she taught full-time. In the late 1960s she used experience gained as a high school majorette to found a competition baton team. Competitive twirling was at its peak, and Ransom’s team won the Alabama state championships four years in a row.

As always, simplicity was key. “I had a truck with a camper on the back, and I would take the students all around for baton competitions,” says Ransom. “Now I look back on that time and think, if I was a parent, I would have never have sent my kid off with some 18-year-old to travel the country. It was a different time then and I guess the parents trusted me.”

While baton competitions eventually died out, the studio still offers classes in twirling. Parker, a former Auburn University majorette, believes that dance and baton twirling go hand-in-hand. “Dancing is what gives your body the correct form and coordination it needs to not just twirl but to incorporate movement into your routines,” Parker says. “Just like ice skaters use ballet to improve their artistry, a twirler needs some form of dance.”

As some things changed, others remained the same—such as the family’s insistence on improving as teachers and continuing with their own dance educations. “I can remember my mother taking me to Betty and Danny Hoctor’s Dance Caravan when they were just starting out,” says Ransom. “We took classes there from teachers like Art Stone and Jack Stanley.”

Ransom’s introduction to jazz dance also came at one of the dance conventions she attended. “We didn’t have jazz dance [in our area] until the 1960s,” says Ransom. “The biggest influence for me in starting to teach jazz at the studio was Joe Tremaine, whom I took classes from at a dance convention in Atlanta.”

When Atkins retired in 1986, Ransom changed the studio’s name to Dance Generation to reflect not only the generations of family ownership, but the generations of students who were trained there. “My mother taught students whose children I taught and whose grandchildren we are teaching today,” says Ransom.

Today Dance Generation is housed in a 5,000-square-foot, fully equipped, two-studio facility in Montgomery that Ransom and Parker own. One special feature is the studio’s teaching stages, raised areas where a teacher can demonstrate dance steps and be seen by all students in the room.

Dance Generation’s curriculum of ballet, tap, pointe, lyrical, baton, and gymnastics is taught by Ransom and Parker, with the help of a former student now on faculty and several teaching assistants. Typical class sizes range from 12 to 15 students. “It’s always been a studio policy to not take on more students than the teaching staff can handle,” says Ransom. “We believe quality instruction is our top priority, more so than increasing enrollment.”

Dance Generation students also perform in community shows, lecture-demonstrations, parades, and dance competitions. “We tell our students on our six competition teams that you want to do everything in your power to win, but winning isn’t the most important goal,” says Ransom. “The most important thing, no matter the outcome, is to do your very best.”

Annual recitals, such as 2009’s “Come Fly With Me,” complete with elaborate scenery, props such as rolling luggage, and sound effects (including pilot announcements), are a far cry from the homemade-costumed recitals of the Atkins Sisters.

While much has changed, Ransom feels the biggest change has been in the attitudes of parents, many of whom do not work with their children to improve their skills or challenge them with enough responsibility.

“People think that 3- and 4-year-olds cannot learn a lot because they are so young,” says Ransom, whose grandson, Jack, is 4. “We push our younger students to do more, such as put on and take off their own shoes. We feel children are like little sponges when it comes to learning. They will absorb as much as you put out there for them.” Further illustrating that point, Ransom and little Jack won Gold 1st Place for their tap duet, “Little Engines,” at the Alabama State Dance Championships last April.

For Ransom, the most rewarding aspect of continuing the legacy her mother began back in 1937 has been the studio’s sense of family, shared by owners and students alike. “You form a special bond with your students that lasts long after they stop dancing,” she says.

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