Fairies, butterflies and childhood fantasies of being a princess seem possible at Baby Ballerina, a new dance studio in Sterling. From the moment a little girl walks through the door with her parents, dreams, in the form of starched crinoline tutus and tiny pink slippers, take flight. Owner Lori Rodgers has ensured these fantasies have a place to take root with her whimsical decorations that light up each room and enable tiny dancers to forget they are learning.
Although Baby Ballerina, a dance studio aimed at toddler and preschool-age girls, is only four months old, itÕs a dream 10 years in the making for Rodgers. ÒItÕs a haven for little girls. Everything here is just magical and happy. ThatÕs what I wanted. I wanted to create a place no one ever wants to leave. I guess I did my job, too. ThatÕs why I have lollipops to get them out the door,Ó laughs Rodgers. Sweet lollipops are kept in a box decorated for a little queen beside the front door to motivate little feet out of the classroom and out of the studio.
Walking into Baby Ballerina is usually what hooks parents and little girls. The studio comes alive for children with fairies on the walls, hand-painted enchanted trees on the floors and decorations aimed at bringing out the princess in everyone. The concept wasnÕt difficult said Rodgers. ÒItÕs pink, itÕs princess and itÕs fun.Ó Rodgers even has a special pint-sized bathroom, complete with tiny toilet and sink, in the back for children to feel like this world is sized just for them. ÒThis is perfect,Ó said Rodgers, Òthis is exactly what I wanted it to look like.Ó
For the last decade Rodgers has honed her talent for teaching toddlers and children. She stumbled upon the concept years ago when looking for something to do with her own daughter. Although not a classically trained dancer herself, she quickly began leading classes in the area and over the years developed the program she now uses. In addition to ballet classes, the studio also offers instruction in tap, tumbling and movement.
With fanciful names like Tiny Princess, Tippie Toe Tappers and Fairy Tale Ballet, Rodgers has found no shortage of parents eager to sign their daughters up for instruction.
HER ABILITY TO TEACH young children has garnered her a loyal following that brings sibling after sibling to learn at Rodgers slipper-covered feet. While most clients are local, she has parents that drive each week from as far away as Maryland and West Virginia for classes.
Helen Ditommaso of Ashburn has two daughters that have learned ballet from Rodgers.
ÒWe followed Laurie from Reston, where she taught my oldest daughter. ItÕs nice to have her a little closer now but weÕd follow her anywhere,Ó said Ditommaso. ÒSheÕs just great with little kids and spurs their imagination using the princess costumes. This has everything a little girl loves in one place. It is a little girl's princess fantasy come true with fairies, butterflies and jeweled necklaces and tiaras,Ó said Ditomasso.
One of the reasons clients like Ditommaso are so loyal to Rodgers is that her method enables the tiniest ballerina to grasp the tenants of dance while still learning in a fun and engaging atmosphere. Rodgers said, ÒMost dance places will teach 3-year-olds but not like this, they teach them like they are 7 years old.Ó
Her fans say what sets Rodgers apart from other studios is her style.
ÒShe teaches them the basic ballerina moves in a way they understand. Where other places call it first position, she calls the way they stand Ôduck feet,ÕÓ said Ditommaso. ÒShe tells them both names so as they get older they will know what the stance is called."
As her first daughter graduated to another studio for older girls, Ditommaso said there were no problems making the transition to the other terminology.
Rodgers' tiny ballerinas learn the four classical ballet positions as well as plies and arabesques. Only they think they are scooping kittens off the floor and catching butterflies in mid-air.
Jennifer Rooney of Herndon also followed Rodgers to Baby Ballerina from another studio in Reston. Her daughter currently takes a combination tap and ballet class.
ÒI think itÕs a great tool for little girls and a great way to discover what their passions are. At this age you donÕt know what their passions are. Is she going to love ballet or not? This is a tool for discovery and imagination,Ó said Rooney.
Children in the age group Rodgers specializes in are notoriously difficult to teach because of their short attention spans. ÒSheÕs full of life and can keep 12 kids engaged, which is tough. She keeps them focused and engaged, and itÕs fun,Ó said Rooney.
Rodgers never expects perfection and in fact embraces the chaos a room full of toddlers dressed like Cinderella can create.
ÒI know how a 2 and a half year old behaves. TheyÕre not going to sit there perfectly and listen. IÕm not going to expect them to do that either. That would be insane,Ó said Rodgers.
Instead she utilizes doses of patience and child psychology to capture the attention of her little princesses. ÒI never call them over. That just makes them go the other way. I make it look like so much fun they want to join in,Ó explains Rodgers.
Clever props like candy pink tutus and costumes for popular princesses like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty keep the children riveted during in the classes. ÒThe costumes and props are really wonderful. The girls love them. I like that itÕs just for girls. There isnÕt anything like that anymore,Ó said Rooney.
Rodgers said, ÒIÕm giving them the joy of dancing, the love of dancing but also we are learning the basic steps. ItÕs pre-ballet up until the 4- to 6-age group. ItÕs all very disguised. Disguised learning Ñ just do it and they are like little sponges.Ó
IN THE YOUNGER CLASSES, exercises are very repetitious to reflect how that age group learns. As the age level increases Rodgers separates class categories based on skill level but also fun level because she has to capture the group's imagination to hold their attention. Baby Ballerina students range from 12 months old to 6 years old. Some younger children, she says, may be capable of doing moves taught in an older class but she doesnÕt recommend promoting them because they would not have as much fun with an older group. In the 3- to 4-year-old group, for example, Òthings actually slow down a bit from the 2-year-olds,Ó explains Rodgers, Òbecause they can concentrate more now.Ó
Mainly through word of mouth, Baby Ballerina has quickly prospered beyond the ownersÕ imagination. ÒI actually had a girlfriend come because of me,Ó said Rooney of the ability of moms to network at Baby Ballerina. Rooney, who is moving to Charlottesville, professes that what she will really miss about the area is Baby Ballerina classes and Rodgers engaging teaching.
Classes are only in the second session but there are already more than 200 students. Enrollment doubled from the first session to the second. Rodgers attributes this feat to parents like Rooney telling their friends about the studio. Because she allows new children to drop into classes at any time during the session, new students are constantly being added and Rodgers anticipates hiring additional instructors soon. Two instructors currently handle the class schedule.
Even though classes are offered six days a week Rodgers still considers herself a stay-at-home mother of three. She doesnÕt teach classes after 3 p.m. so she can be there for her own children.
Rodgers' two boys can often be seen playing in the sibling area of the studio. Baby Ballerina was designed to be child and parent friendly. Rodgers has three playrooms in the back of the studio where siblings can go to play, watch videos or read while their sistersÕ dance.
The mock changing room Rodgers created that looks like a castle has become so popular that it can be hard to pull the children away. Seeing how much the students enjoyed this area, Rodgers decided to create a play date that gives students time to play and moms a break, too.
ÒThey have so much fun back there but they donÕt get enough time to enjoy it. ThatÕs where the drop-off idea came from,Ó explains Rodgers. Twice a week in the afternoons children can be dropped off for two hours to play dress up, create crafts, dance, read stories and enjoy a pizza lunch.
Baby Ballerina also hosts princess-themed birthday parties at the studio. These are so popular that Baby Ballerina parties are booked well into the spring.
The next 10-week session begins March 27, but continued enrollment is allowed in any class with space. Classes range from $135 to $145 for a complete session, with eight classes to choose from. Baby Ballerina is located at 22360 South Sterling Blvd., Suite D-101 in Sterling. The phone number is 703-430-3033.