Unassuming dance studio teaches students to ‘dance from their heart’
By Jessica King
From the street, Ramona Julian Academy of Dance doesn’t look like much. It’s blacked-out exterior doesn’t begin to show off the 6,000-square-foot bustling business that serves upwards of 400 local students in any given month.
Former pro-dancer-turned-choreographer-and-teacher Kristi Durbin-Griffin started the business nearly three decades ago, opening in Julian first and in Ramona three years later.
The business at 1530 Main St. boasts three dance studios and a 1,000-square-foot “dancin’ feet” boutique that sells dancewear, costumes, shoes and accessories.
Students range from 2 years old to adulthood, with classes ranging from classic ballet, jazz, lyrical and tap to hip hop, acro, gymnastics and break dancing. The school also offers exercise classes, including Zumba and yoga.
Especially for the younger students, each class is structured to be a steppingstone to the next.
“We follow a syllabus on all our classes,” said Durbin-Griffin. “They get tested at the end of every year to see if they’re going to move up. They have to know certain things. It’s about building blocks and knowing the basics, just like any other thing. I think we pride ourselves on being a technical studio of dance technique.”
Some students belong to the studio’s performance or highly successful competitive teams.
The studio has 26 teams consisting 54 students, with the youngest being a 4-year-old soloist and the oldest ones being high school age.
“They’re knocking them dead, I tell you,” said Durbin-Griffin of her competitive teams’ track record so far this year.
The studio’s performance team is often, though not always, a precursor to a student joining the competitive teams.
“It’s a good place for kids to start,” said Durbin-Griffin, noting that the performers travel to senior centers, the county fair, school assemblies and other such community-oriented events.
When Durbin-Griffin first opened the business, she was its lone teacher. She now employs 17 instructors with varying degrees of experience — some of whom also perform professionally.
She said classes are offered on a rotating basis depending on the availability of the instructors and the community’s interest. Each class is taught with the intention of preparing younger students to advance to another type of dance.
Durbin-Griffin started dancing when she was 4 years old in Missouri. Her career highlights include a stint as a cheerleader in the 1970s for the then-St. Louis Cardinals. She was inducted last fall in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame along with other cheerleaders from that decade.
Locally, she has choreographed for the Coronado Playhouse and Pine Hills Lodge.
Though several of her former students have gone on to have professional dance careers in New York and other places, Durbin-Griffin’s main goal is to provide her students with a memory and a confidence that they can carry on into any future venture.
“We have kids walk in here that are so scared to even look at you and (they) come out of here glowing when they’re dancing and they know that they can do something that makes them feel good,” she said. “We try to teach them to dance from their soul and heart, to love dance.”
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