Johanna Cousin—Forest Parker, second grade teacher and president of Just Cause Dancers—challenges young people to dream big dreams.
Right now, Cousin’s 60 dancers are dreaming of winning a national competition in April. Members of the nonprofit dance company compete at three levels: Minis (ages 3-9), Juniors (ages 10-12), and Elite (ages 13 and up). They practice their moves at the Just Cause studio at 7228 Roosevelt Rd. In October, the group won first place at the Xtreme Spirit regionals, which allowed them to advance to the national championships. Then on Feb. 27, the group again placed first at a competition’s Dance Mayhem category, which is when judges give the team a two-minute mix to quickly develop choreography to. Dianna Williams, a celebrity judge for the Lifetime Network’s “Bring It,” gave Just Cause the top post.
“The producers came up to us after the show and told us to contact them because they want us to be on the next season of Bring It on Lifetime,” Cousin said. “That is absolutely amazing.”
Winning competitions seems to be part of the Just Cause tradition. Since opening in 2006 and relocating to Forest Park two years ago, Just Cause dancers have won more than 100 trophies, which crowd the Just Cause storefront and are also kept in storage at Cousin’s home. The president and head coach of Just Cause encourages her dancers to dream big about dance but also on life in general.
“I am a strong believer,” Cousin declared, “that you can do anything you want in life. That’s what I teach my four children, and that’s what I teach my dancers.”
Lonya Reaves, 17, has been with Just Cause for 12 years, and said, “At first I was scared to perform and danced in the back row. Now I’m in the front and lead every dance. I love to dance in front of crowds. When I do that I just shine.”
Like Reaves, both Kalia Lawrence, 13, and Jarray Hithtie, 17, said that they were shy at first but that dancing over the last year has really “opened them up.” Lawrence said that Just Cause has made her a better person. Hithtie added, “This is like a sisterhood. We opened up to each other as a team.”
Likewise, parents often tell Cousin that their children’s grades spike after they join the company. Cousin said that she and the other coaches emphasize a strong work ethic, and want their students to be more than just stereotypes. That’s why she has a passion for teaching youth all forms of dance—hip hop, jazz, ballet—but also widening their cultural horizons, thus enabling to dream beyond the world they know.
When Just Cause performs at a college, the team arrives early, and Cousin offers dancers a chance to tour the campus before they perform. Every year, Cousin takes students to an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance. Founded in 1958, Alvin Ailey was a choreographer, dancer and cultural leader who aimed to advance social causes through dance inspired by African-American history.
And Cousin uses herself as a role model. While studying at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, she danced professionally, even to the point of performing at the Billboard Music Awards show her senior year. After graduation in 2005, Cousin came back to her hometown of Oak Park, earned a masters degree in education from Concordia University and will soon be awarded a second masters in administration. She also teaches full-time at Lincoln Elementary School in Oak Park and is raising four children.
“I don’t know where she gets the energy,” said Jessica Luciano, the owner of Creativita on Madison Street who has worked with Cousin on various fundraisers. “I don’t think there is a better person to be an inspiration that you can be anything you want to be.”
Cousin charges only $200 for six months of classes, in comparison to other dance studios which can charge 10 times that much. As a 501C3, Just Cause can accept grants and hold fundraisers. If a dancer’s family cannot afford the tuition, Cousin makes scholarships available.
Even bigger than the dream of winning a national championship, Cousin has a vision of using her experience and education to actually start a school in this area. “I want to grow a performing arts school, where students do math and reading in the morning, and in the afternoon they do dance and music and art,” she said, later adding: “I have a strong passion when it comes to the youth, I don’t like it when you try to deter someone’s dreams.”