In Marthe Wright's ballet class the students wear leotards, tights, dance slippers and sometimes diapers.
Dancers ages 2 and 3 toddle into her studio at Slayton House in Howard County for their beloved Miss Marthe's weekly Tiny Tot classes. She is one of few ballet teachers in Howard County to offer classes for students this young, said Carol Black, 'u community liaison for Slayton House.
So many children have swarmed to the Tiny Tot classes that the Slayton House expanded the program from one class to four a week. "She is the best in Columbia and maybe even Howard County," Ms. Black said.
"The demand is tremendous for these classes, it's amazing how they've grown," said one enthusiastic mother, Kathy Kittel.
Her daughter Kara, 2, has completed one Tiny Tot program and has begun her second. Sister Julie, 4, completed the program and is in Ms. Wright's Pre-Ballet class, where the students begin to learn the more structured aspects of ballet, such as basic positions.
In Tiny Tot ballet, Kara experiences what Ms. Wright describes as a "gentle and loving introduction to the world of dance, music and movement in a noncompetitive environment."
Mrs. Kittel says Kara loves the class. "Tiny Tot ballet is not formal ballet, it is music and movement," she said. "In Tiny Tots, Julie learned to have more confidence in her ability and to take chances. She's much more active now, and I attribute that to the ballet classes.
"Kara is learning to focus and pay attention, and she has learned to jump, which is a big deal for a 2-year-old."
For class, Kara wears pink tights and leotard over her diaper. She is one of the younger members of the group, though her seven previous classes make her one of the more experienced dancers. This is only the first or second class for the other toddlers, and a few are still clinging to their mothers.
Ms. Wright's flowered dance skirt, pink shoes, wide smile and reassuring chatter draw her young pupils quickly to the middle of the studio, where she is arranging tutu-clad stuffed animals.
One 3-year-old in a blue leotard and pink tights is already jumping up and down, too excited to be contained. Ms. Wright arranges the children in a circle around the animals, puts on some music, and class begins.
During the next 45 minutes, the toddlers become airplanes, flowers, bunnies and butterflies as Miss Marthe leads them through creative exercises designed to stimulate their imaginations and develop their coordination and ability to follow instructions.
They toddle around in tiny pink ballet slippers, little bodies wriggling with the excitement of being encouraged to stretch, run, jump and hop. Giggling with glee, they spin like ballerinas and work on developing mime skills by building imaginary peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and making faces in front of the wall-length mirror.
After a quick story, the music begins again, and Ms. Wright brings out a bag of brightly colored ribbons. The ribbons are fitted to small rings, which she slips onto the chubby fingers. Her 6-year-old son, Max, lays aside his action figures and emerges from a corner to don blue ribbons and dance around the floor with the toddlers. The children jump and twirl, circling their arms for maximum effect.
Ms. Wright started teaching ballet to children at the age of 15. She has worked as an office manager and spent time teaching aerobics, but she has always retained her love for ballet. She began working at Slayton House Community Center in Wilde Lake as program coordinator when she was pregnant with Max. After he was born, she began teaching ballet again.
"I'm doing what I love," she said, "and I've become the most popular ballet class here in Wilde Lake."
Jeryl Baker, program coordinator at Slayton House, said that Ms' Wright's personality draws people to the class. "She's so vibrant and fun. The kids just love her. She has a lot of kids who come from outside the area to take her classes."
Ms. Wright cites her teaching style as the reason for the success of her classes: "I make it fun for them."