After 35 years leading the Ramona/Julian Academy of Dance studio, Kristi Griffin is ready to bow out with grace.
The longtime Ramona resident handed over the studio to two of her former students, sisters Rachel White and Jennifer Hatfield, this month.
“I’ve decided to retire,” Griffin said. “It is time for the youngest to continue. I’m 72 and I want to do something for myself.
Griffin said she would help White and Hatfield transition into their new roles by serving as a consultant.
“I have no doubt they will create an environment of encouragement, caring and fun,” she said, noting that both have “great” ideas and are in tune with social media. “They are like my daughters. I place my dream in their hands. Seeing them continue my dream is a gift.
Griffin remembers teaching Julian his first class of 15 dancers and gradually growing his business to over 400 students and 20 instructors. At the time of her departure on July 31, the studio offered a wide range of ballet, pointe, tap, hip hop, contemporary jazz, fitness, stretching and strength classes. The school also provided classes in American Sign Language, acrobatics, musical theater, country line dancing, and yoga.
Griffin began taking ballet, tap and jazz lessons at age 4. A former Missouri resident, she was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame as a cheerleader for the former St. Louis Cardinals NFL football team and performed outdoor musicals for St. Louis. She also taught dance at Saint-Louis.
Locally, she has been involved in singing, dancing and coordinating choreography for “Godspell” shows and directing and dancing for churches.
When Griffin moved to Ramona about 40 years ago, there was only one dance studio in town and she was looking for options for her then 3-year-old daughter, Katie Griffin. A few years later, she said she found a space to share in Julian with another dance teacher.
“I had no experience running a business because I was a dancer, so it was a challenge,” she recalls. “It was a lot of work and I learned from my mistakes. I would try to improve every year.
Griffin turned the studio into a success, branching out into Ramona and winning awards such as Grand Champion, Top Studio, Top Choreography, Most Entertaining, Outstanding Technique and sportsmanship awards. One year, Ramona/Julian Academy of Dance won Disneyland’s Liveliest Studio Award in a parade.
When it came time to pass the baton, Griffin didn’t have to look far. She found her successors within the studio – White and Hatfield had taken dance lessons there throughout their childhood.
White, a Ramona resident for 30 years who now lives in Menifee, said she grew up dancing at the Ramona/Julian Academy of Dance. At age 5, she began taking ballet and tap lessons with Griffin.
“As the studio grew, my sisters and I grew with it,” said White, who joined Hatfield, his other sister, Stephanie Cowle, and his mother, Gwen Hernandez, to take lessons at the studio. “I never stopped dancing. I kept dancing and learning new styles.
White said Griffin had been like a second mother to her, always supporting her. So when Griffin sold the business, White said it was quite an inheritance that was given to them.
The sisters will always compete and continue to strive to make dancing an inclusive experience for all children, she said. One way is to welcome all students ages 8 and up into its performance group which organizes dances in communities, schools, retreat centers and at special events.
“They just have to take dance lessons to join the band,” said White, who danced in the Super Bowl in 2003 while in high school. “That’s where people make friends.
“We hold our small town values very high,” she added. “Our goal isn’t to win or be the best, it’s just to give kids the opportunity to do what they love to do.”
A notable difference for the studio, located near McDonald’s at 1530 Main Street, will be to abbreviate the name to RJAD. It’s what everyone calls the studio, and it includes the initials of Rachel and Jennifer.
“We will continue everything Kristi has built and bring it into a modern era,” White said. “Dance is constantly evolving and we want to evolve with it. We have a few new teachers on staff that we are excited about. They bring new styles and techniques to the studio.
In addition to consulting, Griffin plans to stay involved with the studio by taking tap dancing lessons from White and raising money for RJAD by selling candles she makes in the studio’s Dancin Feet shop. Proceeds will help Assistant Director Gwen Hernandez pay for props, costumes and supplies for RJAD’s performance group.
Griffin also plans to take painting classes, has signed up for a crochet class and may take yoga classes at the Ramona Senior Center, she said. Top of her to-do list is visiting relatives in Italy, where her grandfather grew up. She will also spend time with her husband, Paul, and her three children, Katie, Aaron and Hannah.
“But I’ll stay in Ramona, at least that’s the plan for now unless my three kids leave California and then I’ll follow them,” she said while expressing her joy at the thought. to retire. “Wow! What a relief. A heavy weight was lifted off my shoulders.