Dancer still in step after 45 years

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans


There are not too many people in Clayton County who can say they learned how to dance alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood, during the later half of the 20th Century.

Joann Abbate can, and, for the last 45 years, she has been passing on her dance knowledge to local children at Joann's School of Dance in Forest Park.

Abbate, a Forest Park resident, said it never occurred to her, when she opened the school, that it would still be going all of these years later. "I just went to work every day," she said.

On Tuesday, Clayton County Commissioner Sonna Singleton presented a proclamation to Abbate, honoring the dance instructor for the contributions she made, in a "positive manner," to local children since she opened her dance school more than four decades ago.

"Throughout the years, Joann's School of Dance has served as a second home to her students," the proclamation states. "Ms. Joann has served as a surrogate mother, giving not only her knowledge of dance, but also nurturing advice and love to the children. Even to this day, many of her students return to Joann's to take a class, or just visit with her at the dance studio."

Abbate, who does not like to give her age, said she began studying various forms of dance, including ballet, tap and jazz, at the age of 14, at the June Taylor Dance Studio in New York City, in the late 1950s. Taylor's 16, precision choreographed, dancers were featured on comedian Jackie Gleason's variety shows.

Some of Abbate's classmates at the June Taylor Dance Studio included Tony Award-winning entertainer, Ben Vereen, and Academy Award-winning actress, Shirley MacClaine. She said being classmates with those people did not matter at the time, because it was before they were famous.

"You just did your work," she said. "You didn't think about all the [yet-to-be] famous people who were there to study dance."

Abbate said she moved to Forest Park with her family 45 years ago, and decided she liked it so much, that she wanted to stay after other members of her family left. She said she opted to open her own dance studio because she had been a professional dancer, dancing in shows across the country for six years before she moved to Georgia.

Abbate also said she wanted to keep alive the techniques she was taught, by passing them along to younger dance students. "You just try to remember what you were taught, and pass it on," she said. "You try to pass their [past instructors'] technique [on to younger generations of students]."

The dance instructor said each students is different in terms of how easily they take to dance, and the techniques they are being taught, but tap steps tend to be the style that some of her students find the hardest.

"If they enjoy coming, at least they try it," she said. "It's one of those sports, so to speak, that everybody gets a trophy, and everybody excels, even though they might not be a perfect ballerina. At least they get up there and they feel special. I like making children feel special."

Putting the effort into teaching the dance moves to her students, pays off in the end. "I've seen an ugly ducking turn into a swan," Abbate said. "I've gotten kids that are gawky and awful, and turned them into beautiful dancers."

Many of Abbate's students live in the Forest Park and Jonesboro areas, but she added that she has students, who come to her school from as far away as Hiram, Newnan and Decatur. And those who attend, say they are glad they do.

Ramon Frost, 12, said the dance teacher is "fun" because "she encourages you to do the best of your abilities." Frost, of Forest Park, said he has been studying ballet, tap and jazz dancing with Abbate for two years. He said the training has been beneficial outside of dancing. "It helped me with my karate, and made me more flexible, and agile," the young man said.

His younger sister, Dionne, 9, has been studying with Abbate longer than her brother. She said she is now in her sixth year, and is learning how to do ballet, tap, jazz and toe dancing. Dionne Frost, who aspires to become a professional dancer, said one of the reasons she likes studying with Abbate is the patience she has with her pupils.

"If you do something wrong, she'll help you learn the right way to do it," she said.

After 45 years, Abbate said there is no end in sight for her, as far as how long she plans to keep teaching students the ins and outs of dance.

She said she'll keep her school open "until God tells me to stop."