The art of movement: Peninsula girls get first taste of ballet at River City School

Students of Kaisa Laukkanen's pre-ballet class stretch out on the floor at the close of a recent practice. DAMIAN MULINIX photos

ILWACO - The little girls, dressed in leotards and tutus, stretched as far they could, balanced on one foot. They leaped and spun across the room, surely envisioning themselves as prima ballerinas. All this under the patient and watchful eyes of their instructor, Kaisa Laukkanen.

Laukkanen has been the dance instructor at the River City School of Arts and Crafts in Ilwaco for almost a year and a half. She's been dancing since she was a girl in seventh grade, but this is her first stint teaching the art she loves.

Kaisa is only the second dance teacher at the River City School, which has been operating for the last three years. She took on the role when the original instructor, Cindy Flood, opened up her own dance studio. Laukkanen graduated with a bachelor's degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., with a minor in ballet. She was a member of the university dance team all four years she attended.

She has lived in Chinook for about as long as she has been teaching at the school. She grew up in Cathlamet with her parents who are immigrants from Finland.

"I experienced the Midwest when I was away," said Laukkanen. "That was the first time I was away from home. And I went there specifically to experience something different. And I realized how great the Northwest was, so I came back."

Upon returning, she said her mother had seen an advertisement looking for a new ballet teacher at the River City School. It interested Laukkanen, who wanted to find something on a part-time basis - she also works in the office of local architect David E. Jensen.

But Laukkanen keeps herself quite busy teaching at the school, including ballet, tap and jazz dancing.

"I also do what I call creative movement, where I have the students choreograph their own little pieces," she said.

Gender doesn't matter in her classes, and she said that she breaks up the different level of ballet classes into skill and experience levels. There is a pre-ballet class, which is mostly made up of ages four to nine. There are also beginning and intermediate classes taught throughout the week.

The pre-ballet class teaches the basics of the art, including bar exercises, simple movements, turns, leaps and stretches.

During a recent pre-ballet class, the students were to do a series of leaps over water bottles set up on the floor. Laukkanen's teaching assistant Keesha Roberts did a couple of jumps, demonstrating what not to do. The students were to observe and then say what she had done wrong. In response, one little girl started leaping across the room shouting, "Bent leg! Bent leg!"

Laukkanen said there is no time-table for advancement within the classes, that the students move up when they are ready.

"I have a girl who just began about a month ago, but she's had seven years of gymnastics," she said. "So I had her in this class [pre-ballet] just to begin with, she'd never had ballet before. It was pretty easy to see that she was picking up very quickly and needed more of a challenge."

She said that the one thing she hopes her students get out of the experience is a love for dancing.

"And I can see that a lot of them already do," said Laukkanen. "That's the best part about this job."

Another great part of her job, said Laukkanen, is working with her teaching assistant, Roberts, who at 15 years old has been dancing for many years and recently moved into the area from Utah.

"She has beautiful technique," said Laukkanen, "she's a very strong dancer."

And since she is relatively new to teaching, she is yet to have a student go on to continue studying dance. But she did say that she has had some show an interest along those lines.

"I did have four students say that they wanted to become professional dancers," said Laukkanen. "They're only nine and ten [years old] right now, but, we'll see what happens."

Dance classes offered at the River City School of Arts and Crafts

Monday - Tap dance, 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Jazz dance, 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Tuesday - Intermediate/Beginning Ballet, 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Thursday - Pre-Ballet, 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Intermediate Ballet, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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