Posted: Thursday, July 3, 2014 12:28 am | Updated: 9:14 pm, Sat Jul 5, 2014.
Sara Lepley, lifestyles reporter | Collegiate Times
When you walk into the Little Leapers dance studio, you are not walking into an episode of Dance Moms.
Virginia Tech alumna Heather Leeper opened Little Leapers about a year and a half ago. She leads a group of girls of about age 10 through a warm-up routine. Classical music plays as the girls plié, stretch, plié, stretch. When it’s time for them to arch their backs and lift their arms behind them, Leeper asks, “What do you say, girls?
“Hello gorgeous!” The girls respond in British accents, struggling not to smile or laugh.
A whopping 80 percent of small businesses tank within their first year and a half, according to Forbes.
The future looks bright, however, for Little Leapers.
It has earned three awards from the Roanoke Times and a nomination for the highly coveted Macaroni Kid award. The program exists in three locations, with the intention of expanding further. Moreover, Little Leapers plans to publish a book, which Leeper says will be a “game changer.”
The book, entitled The Secrets of the Prima Ballerina, seeks to answer the questions that puzzle most young ballerinas in a fun, colorful way. They might wonder why ballerinas don’t talk. The Prima Ballerina grew up with animals, so to communicate with a swam, such as in the famous ballet Swan Lake, she could only dance like a swan.
“It kind of explains the history of ballet. So you’ve got this ballerina whose dancing around like a bird, well why? Well, in the Secrets of the Prima Ballerina, she can dance like any animal, so it makes sense why a human would run around flapping her arms,” said Leeper.
Leeper hopes the book will be ready to sell by Christmas.
Using stories to help children better understand ballet nestles into the curriculum of Little Leapers, which emphasizes the story-telling aspect of dance. The dancers not only learn the steps of Cinderella or The Nutcracker, but they learn the story behind the dance as well.
Another distinguishing characteristic of Little Leapers is that it is a non-competition studio. Leeper is not opposed to competition and if any of her dancers want to compete, her instructors can and do choreograph routines for them. However, Leeper feels that since her program targets younger girls, competition can wait.
“They’re still just trying to figure out which is their left and right foot, let alone does the kid next to me know their left and right foot,” said Leeper.
While the Little Leaper program specializes in dance classes for beginners under the age of six, it offers classes for all age ranges. In addition to dance, Little Leaper’s also teaches theatre, tumbling and cheerleading, and hosts princess, pirate or mermaid themed birthday parties.
During class, Isabelle Geiss watches Leeper with clear admiration. The 10-year-old wears her hair, which is dyed pink at the ends, in a tight ballerina bun and sports a tee that reads, “dance your heart out,” in glitter block letters.
Seeing how naturally Isabelle holds the barre and follows her instructor’s movements, it’s hard to believe that a dance studio is one of the last places her mother, Karie, thought that the young dancer would be.
“We kind of had a not really positive experience with dance,” said Karie Geiss. “I’m not into the competitive [side]. There’s no way your child should feel like they need to be a different person or have hair extensions at that age.”
When Karie Geiss heard from a friend that Leeper offered a different kind of dance program, she decided to give it a try. At the time, Leeper was still teaching at the local YMCA. Isabelle was too old for the classes Leeper taught, which catered to the six and under crowd, so Leeper invited her to help out. When Leeper opened the studio on First and Main, Isabelle took hip-hop classes and then ballet.
Isabelle’s hard work paid off — she landed the lead in both Alice in Wonderland last spring and The Nutcracker this past winter.
“That meant the world to her and she worked really hard for it,” said Geiss. “I mean, if you have seen a child doing pirouettes at any store in Blacksburg, it was my child. She loves it that much.”
Sit in for three minutes of one of Leeper’s classes, and it isn’t hard to see why.
To help the dancers with their pliés, Leeper asks the girls to imagine they are dancing in a toaster. What happens if your arms fall back? You’re going to get burnt. What happens if your butt sticks out? You’re going to get burnt.
The girls laugh, but they also keep their form.
“There’s a huge emphasis on imagination, especially with the younger kids,” said Maggie Wiest, an instructor who started teaching at Little Leapers in the beginning of her sophomore year of college.
Not only do the students love Leeper, but the parents do, too. Geiss jokes that if Isabelle could move in with Leeper, she probably would. She also adds that Leeper’s impact on Isabelle, and how much more confident Isabelle has grown since starting to dance at Little Leapers, is priceless.
Leeper says the community of Blacksburg is a huge part of why Little Leaper’s has been able to take off.
Before moving back to Blacksburg, Leeper attempted to build a similar studio in Northern Virginia. But starting a business in Northern Virginia is no easy feat. Not only is it expensive, but an excess of thriving businesses already exist. While Blacksburg also has its share of established businesses, Leeper found the town to have more faith in her idea.
“The community was a little different here. When they saw that we were doing something different and something good for the community, and that it really was all about the kids, it just sort of spread like wild fire,” said Leeper.
Leeper not only makes a difference in the lives of her dancers, but also actively contributes to the community, especially within the nest that is First and Main.
First and Main, which Geiss describes as a family, hosts multiple events for children, for which Leeper always provides a princess. For the Easter egg hunt, she even brought a live rabbit. Leeper also offers a “parent’s night out,” every other Saturday from six to ten. For twenty dollars, Little Leaper’s feeds and entertains children so that their parents can go out for a date night. She also gives discounted ticket prices to the boys’ and girls’ club.
“She donates to every charity. It’s amazing,” said Geiss.
Little Leaper’s impact extends beyond Blacksburg. Currently, Leeper has a studio in Roanoke and partners with a studio in Baltimore, Maryland. While the studio in Maryland operates independently, it uses the Little Leapers curriculum to teach the younger set.
Leeper hopes to collaborate with more studios in this way, since her program fills a common void. Frequently, she said, talented dance instructors do an excellent job of taking older students to the next level, but they lack the patience, background or ability to break the steps down for students under the age of six.
Making ballet and other dance forms more accessible for youngsters is something that Little Leapers does exceptionally well.
“Our program is kind of a no-brainer. You follow the curriculum, you’ll be able to work with any kid,” said Leeper.
Partnerships like this not only help Leeper expand her dance philosophy, but it also helps other businesses grow and prosper, because they can serve a new audience. When a new studio takes up the program, Little Leaper’s sends music and costumes.
The costumes, which are partly the product of Leeper’s degree in apparel, housing and resource management, are an essential part of the program.
“It’s very important that we don’t just slap them in anything, that it’s our branded thing,” said Leeper. “If you were to walk into any classroom, you would know that it’s a Little Leapers costume.”
The costumes, which fit like aprons, adjust so that no matter the size of the dancer, the costume will fit. Dancers get to wear them not only at performances, but also in the last part of each lesson. Colors vary to fit different characters, but other than that, the costumes quite are uniform.
When Leeper had the idea to design and create branded costumes, she wrote it down in a notebook she keeps by her bed. This is a practice she encourages all aspiring entrepreneurs to try.
“Definitely keep a notebook, always keep your ideas.”
Leeper did extensive preparation before she opened Little Leapers. She planned the
curriculum of the whole first year and saved enough money so that when she opened the studio, she didn’t have to take out a loan.
Leeper’s story of early success might be uncommon, but she says it's her youth that has allowed her to do so well for herself. She has energy and a passion for what she does, and while eventually she would like a house and family, those are not factors she needs to worry about at the moment.
While she stresses the importance of planning, she encourages young people to go after what they want.
“Right now is the most perfect time for me to just jump in and do things, because what’s the worst that’s going to happen if I fail? I’m going to end up right where I started, you know and go rent an apartment like everybody else my age in their early twenties,” Leeper said.