When Lori Axelrod took over Miss Marion's School of Dance, in 1999, she wanted to maintain the legacy her mother, Marion, had established in Spartanburg, South Carolina. "We're a very community-oriented school," she says. "We go out and do things for other people—perform for nursing homes, schools and different community events. That's what we're known for." Eight years ago, after beating breast cancer, Axelrod created an annual event, "Paint Our Town Pink," in which students perform to raise money for women who can't afford mammograms.
She starts instilling this sense of generosity in her students at an early age. In her preschool ballet and tap combination classes, Axelrod encourages self-confidence and camaraderie through moments of improvisation throughout class. "I'll say, 'It's your turn. How are you going to be a star?' And then they'll show me," she says. One by one, the students will demonstrate their favorite dance steps for the rest of the class. "I don't want to just teach them the shuffle-ball-change," says Axelrod. "I want to encourage them to love it. They're going to stay if they love it."
Amid teaching the 3- to 4-year-olds basic ballet and tap skills, like skipping, passé, walking on relevé and pointing and flexing their toes, Axelrod finds fun ways to make class feel more like playtime. "The other day I had them bring their dolls in, and we stretched with the dolls," she says. "They loved it."