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Twinkle Toes [Washington Parent]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Washington Parent
August 2003


The auditorium was dark and the audience quiet as a line of 3-year-olds made their way onto the stage. Many wore smiles, but a few tots weren’t so sure they liked being in the spotlight. When the music cued up, most of* the ballerinas in the Fairfax Tiny Dancers troupe recalled steps they’d practiced for months—all except for Samantha.

“The sweet thing got on stage and decided she wanted her mother,” says Tiny Dancers founder Donna Rathe, who knew exactly what to do. Without hesitation, the 51-year-old dance teacher stepped out from behind the curtain and began twirling right along with Samantha, and her now-confused partner Vanessa.

“I realized she needed a mother figure, and knew I was going to have to do,” says Rathe, who with ballerina Christine Magenheimer founded the Tiny Dancers studio in September 2001.

The audience roared with applause and the show, of course, was a hit. Although Rathe hasn’t had to come to the rescue before, she says it ‘s not unusual that kids get nervous when dancing in front of large crowds. And that’s exactly why she encourages parents to start their children dancing when they are young.

“Kids are natural hams,” she says. “Too often, as they get older, they start to clam up. Our goal is to teach these young children self-expression and self-esteem, and to be creative without any fear or hesitancy. We want them to be able to dance with their souls—not just their feet. And we want them to feel comfortable on stage. Usually, it works out fine.”

Like other ballet teachers in the Washington area, Rathe and Magenheimer are classically trained dancers who started their own studio to share their passion for dance with children. (Rathe has a BA in theater and education from Montclair University in New Jersey, and Magenheimer earned a BFA in dance at George Mason before training with Alvin Ailey in Manhattan).

To that end, each session at Tiny Dancers begins with a lesson in body awareness. Standing before a classroom filled with unbearably cute toddlers in pink leotards and matching slippers, Rathe explains that the bumpy bone down their back needs to be straight not crooked. That those hard bones above the belly make up the ribcage, and it needs to be lifted. Chins need to be up, not around the shoulders and necks need to be long like a swan, not squished like a turtle.

From classrooms in Fairfax, Old Town, Annandale, Vienna and Haymarket and at Lifetime Fitness in Centreville, Tiny Dancers introduces more than 200 3- to 5-year-olds to the basics of ballet. Then, at age 6, children move into a class called Danza Bella (Italian for beautiful dance), which is run by Magenheimer.

Having founded their company less than two years ago, Rathe and Magenheimer are quick to point out they don’t want to raid other ballet companies for students.

“The relationship between student and ballet teacher is a special one, and we didn’t want to come onto the scene and break up anything,” Rathe says. “That’s why we started with classes for the littlest ones. As our students grow, our company will grow, too.”


Nancy Parenti took a similar tact when she founded Ballet Petite in Bethesda.
It was 1995, and the ballerina who graduated from the University of Maryland’s undergraduate dance program, American University’s graduate dance program and taught for 17 years at the Washington School of Ballet, decided she wanted to spend more time with her husband (a physician at GWU Hospital who specializes in infectious disease) and their three children (Vincent, Nicholas and Isabel).

But she didn’t want to stop dancing. So Parenti coupled her love for ballet with her skills as a superb seamstress and began teaching beginning ballet to 3-and 4-year-old girls in a small room at her church. She sewed costumes that matched the theme of a favorite fairytale—Snow White, The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, among others—and, at the start of each class, read the tale of the day. The children then dressed up in those handmade costumes, learned several ballet steps and by the end of the hour performed a simple dance routine based on the fairytale.

The class was so popular that soon Parenti hired teachers to help her. Then she developed a pre-ballet class for 5- and 6-year-olds. Soon after came a Magical Mornings class for 2-year-olds that also incorporated moms, a tea party snack and an art project. As her loyal students grew older, Parenti created a class for 7-year-olds to begin their official ballet training.

Before she knew it, Parenti was overseeing a staff of 20 teachers, had leased six studios in Bethesda, four in Potomac, one in Gaithersburg and several sites in McLean, Baltimore and Alexandria.

“It was a snowball that just kept rolling,” Parenti says today. She admits she still doesn’t have enough time to spend at home, but fortunately her daughter Isabel (now 10) is as much in love with dance as her mother.

“She’s currently enrolled at the Washington School of Ballet, with none other than my dance teacher,” Parenti says, Isabel also is enrolled in Ballet Petite’s newest program, a musical theater class that incorporates dancing, singing and acting for children ages 6 to 12.

“I love this program because it teaches the children three performance skills, and helps them feel really comfortable on stage,” Parenti says, noting students learn tunes from musicals such as “Annie” and “Oliver,” “The Sound of Music” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” then take their show on the road to venues throughout the area.

In June, for instance, the group performed for a crowd of more than 1,000 at an outdoor amphitheater in Gaithersburg.

Of course, the dozens of students enrolled in her ballet classes get plenty of stage time, too. In addition to semiannual recitals, Ballet Petite students have performed at the National Zoo’s Guppy Gala, the White House Easter Egg Roll event and even at Walt Disney World—a performance they auditioned for, didn’t make the first go-around, but got in last year.

Parenti also makes sure that her students learn to give back to the community. Last year, Ballet Petite hosted a fashion show at the Columbia Country Club. With the assistance of the local Lilly Pulitzer clothing shop, ballerinas and their teachers modeled the season’s finest outfits and afterward enjoyed tasty morsels served at an “etiquette” luncheon.

The event raised $6,000, which Parenti used to help underprivileged children at Casa Materna, an orphanage in Portici, Italy, near Naples.

“The money covered expenses to send our dance teachers to Italy and they taught the children to dance,” Parenti says. “Our teachers gave them ballet lessons, helped them host a recital and also took a trunk filled with costumes, which they left behind it was wonderful.”

As for the future, Parenti hopes to take her wildly successful dance company national.

“We keep getting calls from parents who have moved from the Washington area and want to start up a Ballet Petite in their new towns,” Parenti explains. “I’ve given it a lot of thought, and think that’s something we’re going to do in the next few years.”

So much for retiring.


When Mia Saunders settled in Clifton, Virginia in 1986, she was eager to find a good ballet school—not just for her daughter Cara, but also for herself. The daughter of a ballerina, Saunders had been taking ballet lessons since she was a child.

“My mother (who still teaches ballet in Eatontown, New Jersey] started pointing my feet when I was in the bassinet,” explains Saunders, 47, who auditioned and was accepted to the famous New York City Ballet School when she was 8.

“Although my mom wanted me to dance, and dance well, she also wanted me to have a normal childhood,” she says. “I knew if I joined the school I would have had to move away from home. My parents didn’t want that.”

So Saunders turned down the NYCS and instead danced with the Garden State Ballet, and joined the ‘swim team. She graduated from her local high school with the rest of the neighborhood kids.

Then, at 17 Saunders made her way to New York to study at the American Ballet Theater School with her mother’s teacher, Madame Maria Yurieva Swoboda. “It was wonderful,” Saunders admits, but when she was 20 she met Army lieutenant Raymond Saunders.

Once again she was given the choice of “normal” vs. the world of professional ballet, and Saunders opted for the former. She married, and the couple moved around the country to towns where he was stationed. At each stop, Saunders danced with the local ballet company, including the Denver Ballet, among others. She also had two children, Mike (23) and Cara (21).

When the family arrived in Northern Virginia, Saunders decided the time had come to start a ballet school of her own. She went back to college at George Mason University where she received a BS in early childhood education with a specialty in dance. That degree, plus her years of dance experience, impressed parents and helped the program catch on quickly.

In the last 17 years, Saunders’s has grown steadily. Today she teaches classical ballet to more than 70 children, ranging in age from 4 to 17. Her policy: if a child wants to dance, no matter her shape or size, she can dance with Miss Mia.

“Dance should be for everyone,” says Saunders. “From 4 years old on up, we welcome any student who wants to learn to move and express themselves. If the desire is there, I can foster Christmastime performance of “The Nutcracker,” which includes all of her students—and a few high-profile members of the Clifton community. “We try to get everybody in on it, from a local realtor and his wife to several neighbors. We all have a whole lot of fun.”

And Saunders raises a whole lot of money for local charities. Last year she gave half of the $7,000 that the show generated to the Centreville High School Scholarship Fund. The other half went to the Western Fairfax Christian Ministries Emergency Relief Fund. In previous years, she’s made sizable donations to Children’s Hospital, the 9-11 Survivors’ Fund of the National Capital Region, and the Centreville Volunteer Fire Department.

To Saunders, teaching her students the importance of giving back to the community is as critical as teaching them to move their bodies with grace and poise.

“Little kids are naturally inclined toward movement,” she says. “By starting them early in ballet, their movement is guided. And by the time they become teenagers, their love for dance becomes a release from the pressures of growing up.”

“My students tell me they gravitate to it when they need a break from school, homework, and their parents. Dance is an outlet they can tap into for the rest of their lives. I can’t imagine a better activity for children.”


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• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.