Tech alumna inspires children through dance

July 10, 2013

Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 12:00 am

Rachel Cline, features staff writer | Collegiate Times

For hundreds of years, ballerinas have captivated audiences with their graceful steps, elegant lines and effortless strength. With every turn and leap, they have become almost synonymous with beauty and poise.


However, when audiences are watching a ballerina glide across a stage, they usually are not picturing her as a three-year-old twirling around a studio in a pink tutu. For Heather Leeper, nurturing that little girl with big dreams through her own love of dance has become not only her job, but also her passion.


Just one year ago, the 26-year-old Virginia Tech alumna returned to Blacksburg and began teaching dance classes at the YMCA. Today, Leeper is the owner of Little Leapers dance studio in the First and Main shopping center, something she didn’t quite imagine when attending Tech for interior design.


“I went into (interior design), but I never really had that passion for it, said Leeper. “I spent more time working on (Dance Company at Virginia Tech) stuff than I was on school work.”


By no surprise, Leeper has been dancing since she was three years old. Both her mother and grandmother were dancers before her, making dance lessons at a young age an obvious choice. She wasn’t sure if she would dance when she grew up, but she did know that she loved wearing costumes.


Holding true to her three-year-old self, Leeper has worked to incorporate costumes into her unique dance program. In the beginning, Leeper hand-made each costume on her own, but now the Little Leapers costumes are professionally made and branded specifically for the studio.


“Little Leapers is a specialized dance program,” said Leeper. “We use a lot of literature and theatrics to involve the kids in dance so they’re learning that ballet is not just about plies and pointing your toes at the bar.”


Through the Little Leapers program, children between two and seven years old learn technique by reading stories and then acting them out through costumed dance at the end of class.


“Our curriculum is very different from other studios,” said Chelsea McGinnis, who has been teaching at the studio since March. “(The students) learn their stretches and their steps though stories and activities, so they don’t realize that they’re learning.”


When the studio was first starting out, it was a one-woman show with Leeper at the head, but it has since expanded exponentially. With a staff full of qualified teachers from both Tech and Radford University, Leeper has been able to add more to the studio than she would have done if still working on her own.


Leeper has added several outlets for the studio to connect to the community, including spring and winter stage productions, and fairy tale princesses and mermaids for public appearances and birthday parties. The productions are open to community participation, and the princesses are often played by college students with interests in modeling or acting.


Leeper is also hoping to spread the Little Leapers curriculum by making it available across the country, as well as through a series of books. The Secrets of the Prima Ballerina book series is set to publish in December and is meant for use along with dance classes, just as they currently use stories in the Little Leapers classes.


While Little Leapers got its start with children’s dance, it has since grown to include classes for older students. Older girls can take classes in ballet, musical theater and hip-hop. There are now classes available for college-age girls. Sassy Fit, a chair exercise burlesque class, meets every Friday night, and there are also ballet, tap and belly dancing classes for adults. Leeper hopes to add a new studio location primarily for adult classes soon.


Since starting out in the Blacksburg YMCA just one year ago, Leeper has seen a lot of changes and growth for her studio.


“When we first started this time last summer, we had maybe 30 students,” Leeper said.


“However, we were constantly evolving and getting more students.”


As Little Leapers continues to expand into other cities—including Baltimore, where they have already started—Leeper hopes to find similar ways to connect with the community, as she feels dance is something everyone can understand.


“There’s something about dressing up and dancing around to music,” Leeper said. “At everyone’s core, we all love to dance. Some people may publicly hate it, but they might be dancing around in their car. There’s something about the human body that likes to move.” 


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