Evelyn Johnson’s mother, Denise Brown, came to the United States after the Nazis took control of her native Paris. She had fallen in love with and married an American G.I. along the same time her father, a resistance fighter, had been arrested and she took over his work. But she carried one thing with her in her trip over the ocean to her new home in University Park: a love of ballet.
That love sparked her to found the Denise Brown School of Ballet, now called City Ballet, which Johnson lovingly carries on 65 years later.
“When my oldest sister was about four years old, the mothers in the neighborhood found out that Denise, my mother, was a dancer and they talked her into teaching their children,” Johnson said. “She started teaching them in one of the bedrooms of the house. They moved the furniture out of the room, my father put some portable ballet barres in there, and that’s how she started.”
Before she knew it, Brown had 50 students. To comply with city code — her husband was the finance director for University Park — she rented a space on Lovers Lane. Though the studio has moved around in its 65-year history, the current space sits on the same street.
“She’s a really hard act to follow,” Johnson said of her mother, who taught until she was 83 years old. “She could see somebody in the grocery store and say, ‘You’re so-and-so’s grandmother.’ She remembered everyone and everything and got to know the family — not just the child in the room.”
But even though Johnson admits she had big shoes to fill, clients and families are still coming to her for that very reason.
Mary Ann May noticed the genuine love emanating from the studio’s instructors, rather than just the harsh criticism that could be found at other schools.
“I wasn’t going to put [my daughter] in a place that was so strict they would extinguish her love of dance,” she said.
She enrolled her daughter, Sydney, who now has her sights set on a professional dance career after 10 years with City Ballet.
Following her third year with the school, Sydney wanted to move up to a pointe class, so her mother went to speak with Brown, who then spent one-on-one time with Sydney after class.
“She said, ‘I’ve pulled some ballet shoes out. Let me look at your foot. I’m going to take you into the studio and see if your ankles can support you, but you have to show me you’re strong enough,’” May said.
Sydney passed the test and moved up to the next class. Eventually, Brown gave her a pair of own pointe shoes, which May says still hang on Sydney’s bed at home.
It’s the dedication to students such as Sydney that Johnson has carried on even after her mother’s death.
“This is a family of people who really know my daughter, and that’s what’s amazing about it,” May said. “It’s a place of enrichment.”
Of course, that enrichment isn’t just about the emotional support; the technical side of ballet is very much a part of the curriculum at City Ballet, but it’s presented in such a way that doesn’t overwhelm its dancers.
“City Ballet teaches you strength of character and pushes your boundaries in the best way possible,” former student Jane Beaird said. “It’s intense, but with that comes this feeling of empowering yourself.”
And it’s that feeling of self-empowerment that Johnson loves teaching to students in the studio’s 65th year.
“I’m beginning to understand what my mother went through in that I am now seeing the children of students that I taught,” Johnson said. “It’s more than just ballet. It’s life lessons. It’s a culmination of ballet teacher and parent.”