By Rhonda Van Pelt
Jan Johnson has a confession: She dropped out of her first ballet class. And she didn’t tell her mother.
At the time, she was 8 years old and didn’t want to stand in regimented rows and wave her arms. She wanted to move her whole body, to channel her energy. She wanted to be a dancer, an ice skater and a gymnast.
Now, the founder and director of Ormao Dance Company is all grown up — and that early not-so-great experience with dance influences everything Johnson’s brainchild has been doing for nearly 25 years.
After Johnson’s mother found out she’d been skipping ballet class, the lively little girl soon was enrolled in gymnastics.
“I got to a certain level and they said, ‘You really should take more dance classes, it would really help with your floor exercise and your balance beam.’ And I was like, ‘No, see, I don’t like dance. That’s not going to work out,’ ” she recalled, laughing.
She rediscovered her passion for dance and, after moving from Wisconsin to Colorado Springs, started looking for kindred spirits.
“I had this idea, moving here, that I just wanted to see what was around in dance, and there wasn’t much. I just thought, ‘Maybe, since it’s not here, I could gather some people together.’ It really just started like that. I got to know everybody in the community and said, ‘If this — would you?’ And I got a half-dozen or so and here we are.”
Broadening the concept
Johnson originally wanted Ormao to be strictly a performing organization, but children and families began requesting kids classes. Now, Johnson and her staff offer classes including creative movement for 3- to 4-year-olds, pre-ballet for 5-year-olds, and ballet, improvisation, hip-hop, modern, jazz, lyrical/contemporary and tap for all ages.
It all happens in their Westside studios, just a toe shoe’s throw from Interstate 25. Teen and adult dancers have a large rehearsal space to work in, while the children practice in a smaller space.
Skeptics may say, “What can dancing do for my child’s future career?” Or, “Performing and visual arts are useless in the real world.”
Johnson has the answers.
“It’s been proven over and over again that it doesn’t matter what career choice, that creative thinking and problem-solving is essential to success, whether you’re an engineer, a business person, whatever,” she said. “You’d better be a creative problem-solver and be able to work with other people. You can take that anywhere. We’re not trying to make a professional dancer out of every kid who walks in here.”
The life lessons include thinking on their feet when something goes wrong and understanding that a lot of hard work goes into any successful endeavor. Students may start at Ormao at 9 years old and receive mentoring from the high schoolers; they then grow into their roles as mentors for younger dancers.
“They’re learning to be unafraid to get up in front of their peers, show ideas, problem-solve with another group,” Johnson said. “Every group has a different solution to the same idea.”
Also, the students learn compassion while performing in assisted-living facilities.
“They always talk to all of the residents afterward,” Johnson said. “The parents will stand there and watch that experience and say, ‘I’m afraid to talk to these people.’ It’s beautiful. They’re so unafraid at that age. They really are not thinking about the condition these people are in.”
Helping with … math?
Also, dance is valuable for teaching math — really. A former board member told Johnson about a program called Mathtastic, devised by Karl Schaffer, a mathematics professor and dance teacher, and Erik Stern, a dance professor.
Here’s how it works: An elementary school invites Ormao to perform for all students. The four dancers use music, large tangram puzzle pieces, a huge rubber band and PVC pipes to illustrate math principles. Then, each dancer goes into a classroom with smaller versions of the props to work with students split into groups of four.
[pullquote]“It’s been proven over and over again that it doesn’t matter what career choice, that creative thinking and problem-solving is essential to success, whether you’re an engineer, a business person, whatever.” – Jan Johnson[/pullquote]“It’s fun to watch the kids in each group — each one has a different dynamic, depending on which kids end up with each other,” Johnson said. “The teacher and our dancer, their job is to keep everybody engaged, make sure that nobody checks out. But you can definitely see which kids really take to the whole idea of visual and spatial activities like that.”
She loves the way Mathtastic makes math more enjoyable and understandable — and so do teachers.
“We ask them if there’s anything they would recommend and if they’d have us back,” Johnson said. “Most of our surveys are just wonderfully positive. It’s hard to measure the kids, but measuring the teachers, they say, ‘I’m so excited about math again,’ [and] ‘You took us outside the box and new ways of teaching the kids.’ ”
Mathtastic isn’t cheap to stage. The dancers spend hours rehearsing the routines, and the props can be expensive. This is Ormao’s third time in the Give! campaign, after skipping 2013.
For those who can’t afford to donate to Ormao, Johnson said they can always use musicians for rehearsals, and ushers and ticket-takers for performances. People willing to wash costumes would be welcomed with open arms.
“We’re a small organization, so Give! is a huge opportunity for us to reach a broad audience,” Johnson said.
They’re also reaching more people through community collaborations, most recently with performances through the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center’s “Continuance: Charles and Collin Parson” installation.
“Like any original creative work, it’s scary stepping into it. But we’ve developed some great relationships with a lot of really talented people, from visual artists to musicians to lighting designers to choreographers, obviously. The results have been amazing, so that’s the beautiful part of it.”
Who knows — maybe a little girl who thinks she doesn’t like dance will see an Ormao performance, fall in love with it and grow up to mentor generations of young people.
For more information on Ormao, go to ormaodance.org. To donate via the Give! campaign, visit www.indygive.com/inspired-learning/ormao-dance-company.
Give! is an annual year-end philanthropic initiative created to encourage everyone in the Pikes Peak region to get involved with local nonprofits, with a particular emphasis on catalyzing philanthropy from those 36 years old and younger. Over the past five years, Give! has channeled $3.4 million directly to 113 local nonprofits while giving them access to matching grants, media exposure and dozens of hands-on training opportunities from local and regional experts. It is a project of the Colorado Springs Independent alternative newsweekly and is conducted under the fiscal sponsorship of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.