After 35 years at the helm of the Ramona / Julian Academy of Dance studio, Kristi Griffin is ready to bow out with grace.
The longtime Ramona resident handed over the studio this month to two of her former students, sisters Rachel White and Jennifer Hatfield.
“I have decided to retire,” Griffin said. “It is time for the youngest to continue. I am 72 years old and I want to do something for myself.
Griffin said she would help White and Hatfield adjust to their new roles as a consultant.
“I have no doubt that they will create an environment of encouragement, caring and fun,” she said, noting that the two have “great” ideas and are in touch with social media. “They are like my daughters. I put my dream in their hands. To make them continue my dream is a gift.
Griffin remembers teaching his first class of 15 dancers at Julian and gradually growing his business to over 400 students and 20 instructors. When he left on July 31, the studio was offering a wide range of ballet, pointes, tap, hip hop, contemporary jazz, fitness, stretching and strength lessons. The school also offered classes in American Sign Language, acrobatics, musical theater, country dance and yoga.
Griffin began taking ballet, tap and jazz lessons when he was 4 years old. A former Missouri resident, she was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame as the cheerleader for the former St. Louis Cardinals NFL football team and has performed outdoor musicals for mini-operas. St. Louis. She also taught dance in Saint-Louis.
Locally, she has been involved in singing, dancing and coordinating choreography for “Godspell” shows, as well as 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 for Julian to share with another dance teacher.
“I had no experience in 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 do better 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-old Ramona / Julian Academy of Dance won Disneyland’s liveliest studio award in a parade.
When it came time to hand over the baton, Griffin didn’t have to look far. She found her successors in the studio – White and Hatfield had taken dance lessons there throughout their childhood.
White, a 30-year Ramona resident who now lives in Menifee, said she grew up dancing at the Ramona / Julian Academy of Dance. When she was 5, she began taking ballet and tap dance lessons from Griffin.
“As the studio grew, my sisters and I grew up with him,” said White, who joined Hatfield, his other sister, Stephanie Cowle, and his mother, Gwen Hernandez, to take classes at the studio. “I never stopped dancing. I kept dancing and learning new styles.
White said Griffin was like a second mother to her, always supporting her, so when Griffin sold the business White said it was quite a legacy given to them.
The sisters will always participate in competitions and will continue to focus on making dancing an inclusive experience for all children, she said. One way is to welcome all students aged 8 and over to their dance group which organizes dances in communities, schools, retreat centers and at special events.
“They just have to take dance lessons to join the group,” said White, who danced at the Super Bowl in 2003 while in high school. “This is where people make friendships.
“We attach great importance to the values of our small town,” she added. “Our goal isn’t to win or to be the best, it’s just to give kids the opportunity to do what they love to do.”
One notable difference for the studio, located near McDonald’s at 1530 Main Street, will be the abbreviation of the name in RJAD. That’s what everyone calls the studio, and that includes Rachel and Jennifer’s initials.
“We will continue everything Kristi has built and bring it into a modern era,” White said. “Dance is always evolving and we want to evolve with it. We have a few new teachers on staff that we are delighted with. They bring new styles and techniques to the studio.
In addition to the consultation, Griffin plans to stay involved with the studio by taking tap dance lessons with White and fundraising for RJAD by selling candles she makes in the studio’s Dancin Feet store. The proceeds will help Assistant Director Gwen Hernandez pay for props, costumes and supplies for RJAD’s performing group.
Griffin also plans to take painting classes, enrolled in a crochet class, and could take yoga classes at the Ramona Senior Center, she said. At the top of her to-do list, she visits relatives in Italy, where her grandfather grew up. She will also spend time with her husband, Paul, and 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 her retirement. “Wow! What a relief. A heavy weight was lifted from my shoulders.