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Ballet teacher lives to dance

September 13, 2018

Inspired by ballet in childhood, Janis Robinson didn’t learn it until later

If you happen to pop in to one of instructor Janis Robinson’s Metro Parks Tacoma ballet classes, you might see her wearing a black tank top with this message:

“A day without dance is like…Just kidding. I wouldn’t know.”

Robinson’s devotion to dance – of all kinds – has been the lodestar of her existence. When it comes to introducing youngsters to the world of dance, Robinson is one of Metro Parks Tacoma’s experts.

Semi-retired at 64, Robinson typically either teaches, or takes music-driven classes seven days a week. “How can I be an effective teacher if I’m not doing it,” she says. It’s not a question.

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Robinson is a devotee of Jo Emery, the doyenne of Tacoma ballet, whose former studio was the incubator of generations of aspiring ballerinas. Emery no longer runs a school but still teaches adult ballet as a Metro Parks contractor.

Robinson began teaching children’s dance classes for Metro Parks in 2015. Since then, “Miss Janis,” the name she uses in class, has become a favorite of parents. Some enroll kids as young as 3 in once weekly beginning ballet sessions.

These sometimes rambunctious little ballerinas turn out in tutus, leotards, tights and ballet shoes for half-hour lessons. “Miss Janis” asks parents to make sure the kids use the bathroom before class and that shoes are tied. Even so, interruptions for potty breaks or shoe-tying are frequent. But she presses on with the lesson, and most of the time the kids catch up. She’s often surprised by how much kids internalize. And how much they appreciate the routine.

For the youngest, the goals are simple. Dancers learn to follow the leader, stay in line and make changes with the music. Along the way, she introduces basic ballet positions and terminology: plie, releve, saute. Older students respond on cue, eager to follow her lead.

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She makes a game out of it for the smallest dancers and employs make-believe to focus the kids’ attention. To stretch, dancers make a giant pizza while sitting in a circle with legs spread wide. To learn hand positions, they blow up pretend beach balls. For fun, they leap across the room like tiny fairies. “The sillier I get, the more they like it,” she says.

It’s common for the youngest to get off track: sucking thumbs, making faces in the mirror, hanging on the barre, rolling around on the floor. “Miss Janis” takes it in stride. “It might be easier for me because I’ve got the grandma thing going,” she says.

Grandma indeed. Her long hair may be graying, but “Miss Janis” is easily as svelte and fit as a younger woman, probably because she’s busy dancing. When she was small, her mother signed her up to learn Hawaiian dance and tap. The tap studio was in the same building as Emery’s. Robinson recalls longingly staring through the window at the ballet. “They were just so beautiful,” she said.

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“Miss Janis” teaches tap as well as ballet for Metro Parks.

It wasn’t until she was 43 that she learned ballet. She and her daughter, Leah, then 17, together signed up for one of Emery’s beginning classes. Janis Robinson, the only adult, was definitely the odd ball, but she was also determined. “Pretty soon, I was en pointe” and joined Emery’s company. She’s taken lessons with Emery ever since.

Years before, while in her 30s, she spent five years with Sundown Dancers, a country-western dance team, and traveled to dance competitions in cities such as Denver, Las Vegas and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She’s also been a competitive ballroom dancer and stitched her own ball gowns.

Needless to say, her closets are stuffed with costumes for dance styles of all kinds, including outfits for her youngest students’ recital appearances. Before Independence Day, she said she couldn’t resist the purchase of a set of little skirts in red, white and blue. She jokes that she spends everything she earns as an instructor on dance-related stuff.

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In a way, “Miss Janis” has come full circle. When she was 12 or 13, she used to pretend to be a dance teacher in her garage, where her dad hung a shower curtain as a recital prop.

When Metro Parks sought dance instructors, her mentor Emery encouraged Robinson to apply. “You need to do this,” Robinson recalls Emery saying. Robinson said she’ll always be grateful for Emery’s willingness to accept her as a beginning adult student years ago. “She gave me an opportunity most people never have.”

Metro Parks Tacoma dance

Metro Parks offers lessons in ballet, jazz, modern, tap, hip hop and ballroom dancing. To register, go online, call (253) 305-1022, or sign up at a community center or at Metro Parks headquarters at 4702 S. 19th St., Tacoma.

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