Teachers' Tools: Up Close With JoJean Retrum

Teachers share the philosophies and materials that make them successful in their careers and classes.

Within the Wisconsin dance community, JoJean Retrum is known for her boys’ program. As director of the Monona Academy of Dance, she is particularly proud to have trained former American Ballet Theatre principal Ethan Stiefel when he was a child. And plenty of her other male students have gone on to professional careers, performing with companies from The Washington Ballet to the cross-dressing Trockaderos. “I’ve always had a lot of guys in my studio,” she says. “I don’t know what I do, but I have this knack for attracting boys.”

They could be drawn to the way she makes boys’ classes a challenge. Before barre, they hit the floor to burn their way through muscle-building push-ups and crunches. During regular barre exercises, Retrum drives home the difficulty of getting ballet right. She makes constant hands-on corrections, so no one gets away with slacking. “I get down on the floor and guide their tendus and dégagés and make them feel it,” she says.

Or, it could be the way she lets them soar during center combinations. One day, boys may try the Russian dance from The Nutcracker and the next, a routine from Newsies. “There isn’t a ballet company that does just ballet anymore,” she says, so incorporating jazz and musical theater skills into technique classes isn’t just a good time—it’s essential.

And she eases new dancers’ nerves. Whether a male begins as a toddler or a teen, she gives him the option to take beginner ballet in a boys-only class before introducing him to coed technique classes. Partnering starts as young as 11, but begins very simply: The boy puts his hands on the girl’s waist and practices tilting her side to side on two feet.

Retrum credits her late mother, who founded the studio in 1948, with teaching her to find every dancer’s potential. “She would help each individual child, and that’s something I try to do,” she says. “You don’t just let someone who’s struggling keep struggling. You give them extra help so they feel like they’re a part of it. Anyone can learn how to dance. You just have to work a lot harder with some of the kids.” DT

Pre-class routine: Retrum keeps it simple, warming herself up with pliés and relevés.

Footwear: Capezio Pedini

Weight training: “Sometimes I make students hold weights (or soup cans) so they realize they need to have strength in their backs to hold their arms up.”

To motivate young males: Retrum suggests Center Stage, starring her former student Ethan Stiefel.

Favorite inspirational read: Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin. “What inspired me were the trials and tribulations he went through to achieve his dreams. I had him guest for my Nutcracker twice.”

Outside the studio: Retrum likes to unwind with a round of golf.

Photos from top: courtesy of JoJean Retrum; golf ball by Thomas Northcut/Thinkstock

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