Fresh Legs

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Marisa Roth stands in balletís fifth position preparing for a dance combination recently at the Dance Arts Studio Center in Kalispell. Roth took over as owner and director of the studio and the Northwest Ballet School and Co. when her former teacher, Carol Jakes, retired at the end of 2006. Photos by Jennifer DeMonte/ The Daily Inter Lake

A former student becomes the new director at Northwest Ballet School

After nearly three decades spent teaching the Flathead Valley how to dance, Carol Jakes has begun to see her legacy affect entire families.

At the annual performance of "The Nutcracker" last Thanksgiving, for example, a man danced in the show with his daughter and granddaughter.

"This generational thing is happening now," Jakes said. "It's wonderful to have the tradition carry on like that."

Starting this year, it's a tradition others will carry on in her place. In January, Jakes' former student Marisa Roth became the new owner and director of the Northwest Ballet School and Co. After 29 years, Jakes is hanging up her toe shoes and handing over the directing of her beloved school.

"It's something that we knew would happen," Roth said. "It was only a matter of when."

The school flourished during Jakes' tenure, to the point where she felt a little overwhelmed. That and a bad back encouraged her to sell to Roth.

"I needed to take a new direction, but not because I didn't love it," Jakes said. "It's funny; normally when people get out, it's, 'I hate this job and need to be out.' But for me, it was, 'I love this job, but I need to be out.'

"It feels really weird, and that's a really awkward way to say that, but it feels really right, also."

She won't leave the school entirely, however; she plans to return to help with choreography. It's been such an important part of her life for so long, she won't be able to quit it completely.

"Once you have it in your soul," she said, "it's like you've got to keep dancing."

Jakes fell in love with ballet soon after she began at age 3 at the Marin Ballet Center for Dance in San Rafael, Calif. She studied under big-name instructors, including Robert Joffrey, David Moore and Norbert Vesak, and danced major roles in "The Nutcracker."

But as a teenager, she decided she wanted to broaden her dance horizons.

"When I was a junior in high school, I thought, you know, I know I'm not going to be a professional ballerina," she said. "It's such a narrow road."

So Jakes quit the Marin Ballet Regional Dance Co. and got into musical theater at her high school. When she went on to Gonzaga University in Spokane, she continued her broad education and studied dance and theater.

It was in Spokane that she met and married her husband. When he got a job in Kalispell, she moved with him to the Flathead Valley. She hadn't been here long before deciding to return to her dance roots.

"I was working at Ben Franklin when I thought, 'I can do better than this,'" she said. "I thought, 'There is no way I want to continue working at Ben Franklin for the rest of my life.'"

So she put an ad in the paper, and within three days, Jakes had 50 students. Her first class was Feb. 2, 1977, at the Sons of Norway hall.

"I had a notebook full of notes I had typed up for that first class," she remembered. "But when I put that needle on the record - because it was records back then - I did not look at that notebook once, once it started.

"I just felt like I was at home, teaching those little kids. And, they say, the rest was history."

The school's first production of "The Nutcracker" took place the next December. The students wore costumes their mothers had made.

"It was quite short, but it was OK, you know?" Jakes said. "It was a beginning."

A few months later was the spring recital in what is now Laser School. The theme was Mother Goose rhymes, and the children were excited about the performance and their costumes.

"I remember the gymnasium was packed with parents to see the recital - and the recital lasted 11 minutes," Jakes said, laughing. "Now recitals go on for two and a half hours. It just has grown from there."

Jakes still remembers Roth's first day of ballet class. The studio had just opened at its new location in Pettyjohn's Water Store, about a year after its debut in the Sons of Norway building.

"When I moved over there, one of my first little students was Marisa," Jakes said. "She was crying in a corner, and her mom was holding her, and [she] was like, 'Oh, I don't want to do it!'"

The little girl cried the first few times her mother dropped her off, Jakes recalled. "But once she got out there, man, she was a dancer."

At the time, ballet was the only class offered, Roth said. She began dancing at age 3 and continued under Jakes' tutelage through high school, when she was part of the school's Northwest Ballet Co.

"I was a definite bunhead. Ballet was my passion," Roth said. "One of the reasons was there was really nothing else offered at the studio. That was really the only path I could go down. But I loved it."

After graduation, she continued studying ballet in Erie, Pa., in Mercyhurst College's prestigious program. She finished with a bachelor's degree in dance with a concentration in teaching and choreography.

After college, Roth danced with the Lake Erie Ballet Co. for three years, then moved to California. As a professional dancer, she danced from six to eight hours a day, six or seven days a week.

"It takes a lot of energy and time," she said. "I didn't go out on Friday night because I had a Saturday morning company class at 8 a.m."

Finally Roth decided she'd had enough of the professional dance world. She moved back to Kalispell, married her high-school sweetheart and began teaching with Jakes at the Dance Art Center.

The school had changed significantly since the day she cried in the corner before class. It had a full-time tap program and was beginning to expand into other styles. Today, in Roth's eighth year as an instructor, the Northwest Ballet School and Co. offers tap, jazz, hip-hop and modern dance classes in addition to ballet.

"We're kind of an all-purpose studio now, but I would say if you came right down to it, we're a ballet school," Jakes said. "If you're going to be a good dancer, you've got to have ballet."

Giving students a broad base of experience is a goal of the instructors, Roth said.

"The emphasis is on education, just educating children about dance in whatever form they're interested in," she said. "If they don't go on to become a professional dancer, which very few do, we want them to be educated artists."

That education ultimately started with Jakes, she added. The founder's traditions and vision will live on while Roth directs the studio.

"Everything that she kind of instilled in me is what I'm trying to pass on to others, as a teacher and a boss and a friend and a mentor," she said. "She just has a really great passion and joy."

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Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by e-mail at

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