When Jeanne Maddox Peterson started out in her current job, she didn't need much equipment. A room, bars on the walls, and a phonograph. It was 1949, Peterson was still in high school at Star of the Sea, and she was ready to embark on what would become a lifetime profession: teaching people how to dance.
"I've never had another job," says Peterson. "I wouldn't know what else to do in my life." In the past 60 years, her Maddox Dance Studio has seen 20,000 young dancers take their first steps onto the stage and into life. Many have written her letters, thanking her for the contribution she made.
"They learn self-discipline. They learn respect. They learn to organize," says Peterson. "It's not just 'put on the music and dance.' It takes every waking moment." She suspects that some parents send their children to ballet lessons as much for the discipline as for the dance. But even after so many years, students rarely frustrate her. "You have to be patient," she says. "They have to learn to follow rules." Today, she teaches those rules to the children and grandchildren of former students.
The focus required to coordinate the limbs and to coordinate them with the music is something even three year olds can learn in the creative movement class. And it will apply to everything else.
"Anything you do, you need to focus," says Peterson. She should know. The Little Ballet Theatre dance company, twelve classes at the studio, and the Astoria High School dance team require her attention, usually all at once. When her students get busy, she has some advice for them: "I always say if they really want to be here, they'll work it out." In her own life, it seems to have worked.
Peterson had already started dancing when she came to Astoria from Roseburg at age twelve. Piano lessons had sparked an interest in music, but what interested her in dance?
"I have no idea," says Peterson and laughs. "There were no other dancers in my family." But her family encouraged her, allowing her to transform a living room and later a basement into her studio.
Her first recital had eleven students. "Everybody wore white anklets," Peterson remembers. No one had ballet shoes. After finishing high school, she moved her studio downtown. Since 1994 the Maddox Dance Studio has been in its Warrenton location.
Peterson has few regrets, although she wishes she would have had a little more time when her three daughters were growing up. The advantages of having her own business as a young mother were clear.
"They were with me all the time," says Peterson. "I loved having them in class."
Now that they're grown and have children of their own, her husband is the one who has dinner alone while Peterson is at work, often until 9 p.m. But she still fixes his food in the morning.
"Crock pots are my favorite cooking tool," says Peterson.
One daughter became a professional dancer, something Peterson pursued for two years. "I loved it, but I missed teaching," she says.
The rewards for the long hours of teaching are intangible, but very real. She enjoys the children's achievements, and watching them gain confidence. To help foster successful human beings, "That's the payback," she says.
Peterson still regularly attends summer seminars for dance instructors, yet ballet hasn't changed. "The technique is the same," Peterson says. How does it not get boring? "You just love what you're doing and I guess it just transfers over to everything," she says.
In the future, she hopes her non-profit dance company Little Ballet Theater will continue to grow and increase its repertoire. This year marks the 34th company performance of the Nutcracker. Her first Nutcracker was an excerpt of the full-length show, performed in what is now the Columbian Theater, before the Saturday morning cartoons.
"We just did this little show before the music started," says Peterson.
After all these years, "It's never the same," she insists. The cast changes as little Bon Bons grow into Candy Canes and the choreography adapts to the students' abilities. The set changes, and so do the dances.
"This year we have a brand new snow scene," says Peterson. Brand new, however, doesn't mean modern. Peterson prefers the traditional presentation of the Nutcracker, a choice that has delighted children in the region for many years.
Producing a performance like this takes countless contributors Peterson is eternally grateful to the parents and the community, she says and aside from focus, a calm attitude. "If anything happens I always think it'll all work out," says Peterson. "Everything just falls into place."
What keeps her going? "The love for what I do."