“I believe that what you get out of something equals what you put into it…most of the time.” Marin Johnson
Marin Johnson, who co-owns Forte Studios with her husband Wes, grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. She took her first dance class when she was 11 and was instantly hooked. That passion, along with her talent, has taken her all over the United States – and the world – as a performer. Today, she lives in Wisconsin with Wes and their 3 charming children, and focuses both on teaching students her profession and on running a successful performing arts studio. She was gracious enough to take time away from her busy schedule to answer some of my questions. We talked about her career as a dancer, instructor, mom, and business owner, and Marin also took some time to give tips to younger dancers and dance teachers.
1. Tell us about your career as a dancer.
I have always been very physically active and after discovering my passion for dance at 11, I knew it was something that I wanted to do for my career. Throughout high school, I danced for about 10 hours per week studying Ballet, Jazz, Tap and Pointe with former Radio City Music Hall dancer, Jean Kettell.
While working toward my BA in Dance at Point Park University, I took a break to start my performance career at Opryland USA in Nashville, TN. I will never forget how excited I was on the first day of rehearsal and also on opening day of the show! Opryland was an amazing training ground for young performers and musicians. I loved being there so much that I returned after earning my degree. I worked there for a total of 5 seasons. That is also where I met my husband of 20 years. :-)
So many opportunities came my way as a result of working for Opryland. I have been able to dance in music videos, large theatre productions, corporate events and more. Some of the highlights of my dance career have been performing for and meeting President George Bush Sr., and performing with so many great artists such as Brenda Lee, Lee Greenwood, and all three of The Judds. Anthony Thomas, choreographer of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation videos, was one of my favorite people to work with.
Eventually, I started being offered choreography jobs. I have had the opportunity to choreograph for cruise ships, main stage theatre productions, and many large corporate events. Some of my most memorable moments as a choreographer have been for Celebrity Cruise Lines, Country Tonight’s Theatre in Pigeon Forge, TN, and for Tribute Theater in Myrtle Beach, SC. I also enjoyed working with the Miss USA Regional Pageants as their choreographer.
2. When and why did you go into teaching and running a company?
I have always loved teaching. I taught my first class at age 17. Throughout my dance career I would sub for teachers at local studios. I also enjoyed teaching for dance conventions when I could fit it into my schedule.
In 2005, I was pregnant with my 2nd child and my first child was preparing to start school. I really wanted to be closer to family, so we moved to Wisconsin to be near my sister. The transition was difficult because I had worked very hard to make so many connections in the entertainment business in the south. I didn’t have any connections in Wisconsin and I was coming to the end of my career as a performer which is one of the best ways to start making connections. Honestly, even if I had been younger, there aren’t many opportunities for live entertainment in this area of the country. At least not like there are in Nashville or one of the other larger cities known for entertainment. For a brief time, my husband and I almost moved back to Nashville, but as I said earlier, my family has always come first. I wanted my children to have extended family and I didn’t like only seeing my sister and parents two or three times per year. Once we made the decision to open a performing arts school in Mt. Horeb, everything just fell right into place. That was a great sign to me that we made the right decision… even though I do still miss some of the job opportunities I had in TN and the many friends we have there.
3. How do you balance the demands of running a business, teaching, and family?
This is my biggest challenge! Often, I don’t feel like I am balancing everything. There are certain times during the year (getting ready for a big student performance, registering families for a new season, etc.) when I feel very overwhelmed. I try to just take a breath and do the best I can, but I don’t want anything to suffer. I always have a to-do list. If something isn’t on the list, it likely will not happen. This interview was on the list! I am also getting better at delegating and realizing that while some things may not be done exactly the way I would do them, often times it is still just fine. I need to let go of some things. I also love my crock pot and use it all the time so that my family can still eat healthy even though I don’t have time to stand over the stove! While there is definitely a limit to the messiness, I try not to get caught up with always having a clean house. I’d rather spend time with my kids. When they are grown, hopefully they will remember spending time with me and will not remember or care that the house was messy.
4. What do you think are the keys for students to improve as dancers?
I think I could go on and on for this just because there are so many different personality types and I see so many kids sabotaging their efforts. Here are some things I would tell them:
*Don’t be lazy. Work hard every time! Then work harder!
*Learn to love the barre. Or at least appreciate the technique that comes from barre exercises.
*You MUST only speak to yourself with positive phrases. Example: Instead of saying to yourself, “I’m not going to fall out of this turn” which only makes you focus on falling, say,”I’m going to have perfect balance for this turn” which makes you focus on balancing. May not work every time, but it gears you in the right direction.
*Stop worrying about the level of the class you are in or who else is in there. Concentrate on you and your skill and how you can perform the steps better each time. If you think a dance is too easy, maybe it is because you aren’t doing it right.
*You look sillier when you only halfway go for it, than when you really go for it and fall or stumble. You will also never find out what you are capable of if you only half way try because you are worried about what other people will say or think.
*While the shows are exciting and fun, the shows are not the pay off. The pay off is being able to dance everyday. You will spend many many more hours in the studio than you ever will on stage. If all you are focused on is the stage, then you will likely not put in the work necessary to actually get there.
*Amazing technique is always impressive, but when you can bring someone to tears with your emotion, you will have the gift of leaving a lasting impression on your audience. With that said, you still must work to perfect your technique.
*Be open to new ideas, new techniques, new styles, and new ways of doing old steps.
*Improvise whenever you can. It may be uncomfortable at first, but will eventually help you find your own style. Most auditions include improvisation.
5. What advice would you give to all first year dance teachers or dance teachers of any level of experience?
*Being a great dancer does not equal being a great teacher. You have to connect with your students and make them understand what may come naturally to you at this point.
*Constantly observe them. While dancing with them is beneficial for everyone, don’t do it all the time or you will not see mistakes they are making.
*Don’t get caught up in getting through your whole lesson plan. If you only get through half of it, but the students really understand the concepts, then the class was a success!
*If you are only there to collect a pay check, it’s probably not the right job for you.
*Be honest with the students. If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t make one up. Tell them you will research it and get back to them. Then follow through.
*STOP telling them “Good Job” when it is clearly terrible! Do what you can to build them up, but be truthful or you will end up with a group of kids who stop trying because they already think they are great.
*Stop students in the middle of a dance combination if you have to in order to fix mistakes as early on as possible. Once muscle memory has set in, mistakes are SO hard to fix.
*Give all of your students, no matter the skill level, an opportunity to improvise and think on their own.
"Dance from your heart and say something!"
Visit fortestudios.biz for more information on Marin and her amazing studio.
Here it is. Steven's blog, where his thoughts about things are revealed. Good luck.