By: Stephanie Lee
A Waco ballet instructor at the Deborah Korpi School of Classical Ballet announces that it’s time for class and four students, ages 5 to 7 form a single line and enter the ballet studio as they walk gracefully on their tiptoes. The ballerinas performed exactly as she instructed, without any objections or complaints, as they performed one of the oldest forms of dance in history.
Each student is wearing a flowing skirt, leotard, tights, and ballet shoes. Each student’s hair is neatly put up into a bun with a hair net covering it. It is easy to see the excitement, eagerness and willingness to learn on their faces as the teacher gives them praise while they enter the studio. A certain relaxing presence fills the room as each student is bursting with joy. Students enter happily, and class begins promptly.
Deborah Korpi has been teaching ballet for 25 years. Korpi gives the gift of ballet to Waco children as part of an enrichment program in many schools in the Waco area. Mrs. Korpi also teaches at many schools in Waco, including: Alta Vista Montessori, Columbus Avenue Preschool, First Baptist Church Waco Preschool and First Woodway Christian School.
It all began at the University of Iowa, where she attended college. After she completed her course of study, she noticed children who resided in rural communities did not have access to ballet.
“There are no ballet schools in the rural areas of Iowa. So, I decided that I’d give children access to something they didn’t have access to. I made it a goal to teach children ballet and give them a chance,” Korpi said.
After that, Korpi was well on her way to accomplishing her mission and fulfilling her dream. She and her husband moved to Waco, where she set her sights on the town’s children.
“I wanted to give them something. I love the children. I wanted to teach ballet to those who don’t have an opportunity. I wanted to find the little gems,” Korpi said. Her program took off, as Korpi realized that children needed a pleasant experience at an affordable rate.
“I began calling and talking to school principals. I realized that so many kids were not coming. Then, I gave discounted rates, which I still do, and these kids see this as an incentive to learn something new. My teachers are trained by me, and I make them aware of my mission: to love the children,” Korpi said.
The purpose of the enrichment program that Korpi provides is to provide students, ages 2 and older, with the opportunity to enhance their educational, cultural and art experience. Of course, Korpi said academics come before enrichment.
“Students may not have access to dance. Students may, however, have access to art or music, but we want to offer dance to them. Of course, we are the only classical ballet school in town, and I just thought it would be awesome to bring this beautiful art into a child’s learning environment,” Korpi said.
Korpi teaches a style of ballet called the Cecchetti method, originally created by Enrico Cecchetti, an Italian ballet instructor. Cecchetti studied in Russia in the 1800’s and developed this method, which required self-discipline and high levels of motivation. Korpi said this rare method is the purest and most graceful. She is the only instructor from Austin to Denton who is certified to teach this method to her students.
“I learned this method in college at Iowa, and I wanted to bring it to Texas. I find that even though this method is strict, the children respond to it, no matter what background they are growing up in,” Korpi said.
She also said that this method requires strict instruction, and its curriculum brings out the best in her students and changes their lives.
“You bring me troubled children, and they’ll be amazing. It’s amazing what Cecchetti has done. They seem to gravitate to it,” Korpi said.
The ballet school is seen as a calling for Korpi, who wishes to give the gift of one of the rare forms of art to interested pupils.
“I am one of the smallest performing arts schools. On average, I have about four to nine students in my classes. I am such a small school because I teach such a pure form, and smaller classes are a more feasible learning environment for students. Ballet is a beautiful, God-given talent and there is so much talent in these children,” Korpi said.
Teaching at these institutions, as well as her ballet studio, leads Korpi to believe that these children are finding something special as they follow their hearts and enjoy what they do.
“Ballet is a form of the heart, and we encourage our children to embrace that. We like to be reclaiming what God created for us. To me, ballet worships our God because it’s beautiful, pure, expressive and lovely. Anything that does those things reflects God’s glory, and this is what I want for the children. I want to glorify the Lord in my teaching,” Korpi said.
While teaching these children at the schools and her studio, Korpi has put her own spin on the pure Cecchetti method, making it musical as she sings to her students, which she believes enables them to learn faster.
“I designed my own syllabus,” Korpi said. “I teach the principles of the Cecchetti method, but I put it to music and sing it. These children learn better that way. I have sweet, little crazy things that I do.”
The children not only learn while working with Mrs. Korpi and her staff. They practice and continue learning at home, as they show their parents what they have learned. This is seen as a sense of accomplishment for Korpi’s pupils.
“The mothers come up to me and tell me that the children come home and show them what they’ve learned,” Korpi said. “They tell their mothers that class is fun. This is when I know I’ve done my job, and I’m filling the need. It’s more than teaching these children an art.”
Mrs. Korpi also believes that learning ballet and teaching it to her students is something more than relaxation from academics.
“It’s about nurturing their souls, bringing out the beauty in them and teaching them,” Korpi said. “When I see those rough and tumble kids, I feel so blessed. I always ask myself how I could be doing this. The ones that bounce are the ones that are shaped into new creatures.”
Korpi’s high energy provides children with flexibility during class. She accommodates children’s high energy with her own, making sure the children get the best experience possible, while releasing built up energy and stress.
Katy-Ruth Rogers is one of Korpi’s 7 staff members, serving as her assistant director since January and enjoys teaching the kids.
“I’m the PR [public relations] girl,” Rogers said. “I love teaching the kids because I love children, and I think that sharing the art of ballet is so important. I think ballet can be such a key component in a little life. It’s about encouraging them, giving them hugs and showing them love and attention in ways they don’t get attention. I love Mrs. Korpi’s big heart for the children and her vision for them.”
Sarah Lemister, one of Korpi’s assistants, has been teaching with Mrs. Korpi for a year and considers her students to be special individuals with remarkable potential.
“I love that I am helping spread my passion for younger children and developing skills for them,” Lemister said. “I love working with children and ballet, and it is a great combination. I love that it is a community organization, and most of all, I love meeting the parents and the parental involvement that these parents have with their children’s ballet.”
According to Korpi, anyone is welcome.
“We’ve had autistic children,” Korpi said. “We do not judge anyone. We love to see these children come out of their shells.”
Korpi also said to expect the unexpected.
“We’ve had parents who thought their children would never express themselves,” Korpi said. “However, they do. I have that can-do attitude. I talk in their language, and the magic begins.”
And after a student’s ballet journey ends, he or she is never forgotten.
“I can still remember kids that I’ve had 10 years ago,” Korpi said. “They’ll see me, and recognize me. I always remember them. I love to be a child’s favorite person.”
Her dedication has brought her to incredible success.
“I pour my heart and soul into these children,” Korpi said. “I treat these kids as if they were my own, and now my own children ballet as well.”
Korpi also said that her profession is not a job. It’s something much more.
“This is something that I was called to do,” Korpi said. “It’s not something I have to do. Yes. It’s my job, but it is my passion and something I love. It takes a certain, special person to work with these children. It takes this certain calling because you have to be called to that work.”
And this love is what has led Korpi to her life’s incredible journey as she continues to touch the lives of those she has perfected into beautiful ballerinas, dancing through life.