ENCINITAS — In 1967, Janice Lee opened a dance studio in a simple, one-story building at 230 West F St.
Back then, Encinitas was a small agricultural town, with no stoplights and little interest in the arts.
Since then almost 2,000 students have come through Janice Lee’s School of Ballet, many going on to perform with world-class dance companies and at least 50 pursuing dance in college. Twenty have become ballet teachers. Three former students — Jennifer Grund, Alyssa Alexander and Catharine Grow Goldman — are retired ballerinas.
At 6 p.m. Dec. 22, the newest generation of Janice Lee’s Youth Ballet will step into the spotlight for the classic holiday ballet, “The Nutcracker,” at Ada Harris School auditorium. Set to the music of Tchaikovsky, the annual production features a cast of 50 children and adults, with costumes and sets depicting the Victorian era.
Lee was raised in Whittier, Calif. and started tap dancing and ballet at the age of 3. At 12, she focused completely on ballet.
“It was my first love,” she said. She decided to leave the big city and settle in Leucadia to raise her three sons. When she opened her dance studio, she hired other teachers to do most of the instruction so that she could care for her family and continue to dance professionally. Lee was a member of the San Diego Ballet Company under the direction of Dame Sonia Arova, and was later offered a contract with Munich Opera Ballet.
In the early 1980s she decided to specialize in classical ballet instruction. Students were required to formally curtsy to her at the end of their class. If they missed too many rehearsals, they risked demotion from solo and other prized roles.
“Today, I have 30 students because I want to spend time with those who really want to learn,” she explained. “They don’t have to want to be professionals but they have to want to do it the right way.”
Lee says she’s a stickler for technique. Each year she travels to visit dance companies abroad and learn what is expected of a student at a certain age.
“The athletics today are so much harder,” she explained. “Twelve and 13-year-olds are like 16-year-olds were 10 years ago.”
To create an atmosphere conducive to learning, she discourages parents from observing their children more than once every two months.
“I enjoy taking a new child and seeing how they develop,” she explained. “I tell them, ‘You can’t be the other person in the class, but you can be the best you can be.’ Then, I challenge them to do that.”
Goldman began studying with Lee in 1984, at the age of 7. She describes herself as a hyperactive child who benefitted from the tough love. Goldman went on to join the Milwaukee Ballet Company and Cleveland/San Jose Ballet. In 2010, she retired from Ballet San Jose.
“Janice’s training is absolutely about a clean, beautiful technique,” she said.
“The most important thing I learned from her was the discipline. She was very firm and strict with strong guidelines, but she was also warm, patient and nurturing with a great sense of humor.”
Taylor Tirona used to skateboard in front of Lee’s school while his sister took lessons. At 19, he began studying with her and went on to train at the prestigious Joffrey Ballet School in New York City and The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia.
He describes the importance of also learning life skills.
“Janice understands that when students graduate from her school to pursue other dance programs and companies, they represent her,” he said. “This goes beyond a dancer’s ability, extending to their work ethic and character. Understanding and employing proper preparation, hard work, and consistency are necessary tools for success.”
Today, the ballet school has become a family affair with sons Todd, Troy and Tate taking turns traveling with Lee and handling technical aspects of dance productions.
Ada Harris School is located at 1508 Windsor Road. Tickets cost $10 and $15 and can be purchased at Anderson Stationers, 700 Second St. and Queen Eileen’s at 548 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas. For more information, call (760) 753-7811 or visit JaniceLeeBallet.com.