Theirs isn’t a chronological account but a story told through connecting memories of Jeffie Jean Bolton.
The chronology is simple. Bolton moved to Baton Rouge from Memphis, Tenn., where she received her training in dance. She opened her first dance studio at age 20.
Later, Bolton opened Jeffie Jean Dance Studio on Government Street. That was 70 years ago.
That’s when the memories began. It’s what her former students later wrote in the program for the dance school’s annual June performance after Bolton’s death in 1994.
It’s the same end-of-the-year program that will be performed at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 5, in the LSU Student Union Theater.
The only difference is Bolton’s daughter Jerisse Bolton Grantham is at the helm. Which really is not much difference, because Grantham has run the school in the same spirit as her mom.
Dance is fun; it’s happy. Jeffie Jean Bolton produced dazzling shows that entertained. All styles of dance are taught, but tap dancing, well, that ranks at the top.
Grantham takes the same approach as her mother down to knowing each student’s name. The only thing that’s missing is the cane.
Bolton kept time by tapping her cane on the dance room floor. One former student wrote about the cane in the memory section of the dance program. He wrote that he liked dancing, but he didn’t like the tap of the cane, wishing that it would break. One day, the cane did break, and he thought that would end the perpetual time-keeping.
But it didn’t.
Bolton picked up one of the cane pieces and began tapping it against the wooden dance floor, never missing a beat. The former student ended his story by saying he still enjoyed taking dance at the school.
Grantham lifts a tissue to her eye, and dabs at a tear. She can’t help it.
“That was my mother,” she said. “She always had that cane.”
Grantham sits at a table in the Jeffie Jean Dance Studio’s large ballroom. It’s a real ballroom, designed to accommodate dance instruction, as well as entertaining.
The ballroom is part of the dance school’s permanent home on South Harrell’s Ferry Road after several moves to different locations in Baton Rouge throughout the years. The building once housed a flea market. Grantham’s father, John Bolton, was a contractor. He remodeled the building for Jeffie Jean.
Now Grantham glances around the ballroom. So much of her family history played out here. All of it, really, because Grantham grew up in the dance school. She’s learned here, taught here. And she continues to teach.
“This is the only dance school in Baton Rouge that I know of that’s been in the same family for 70 years,” Judy Henderson said.
Henderson joins Grantham in the ballroom on this particular day. Henderson was 3 years old when she began taking dance lessons from Bolton.
“I had sons, and I told Jeffie Jean that it looked like I wouldn’t be enrolling anyone at the dance school,” Henderson said.
But then her son and his wife became parents to not one but three daughters.
“And I told him the day my first granddaughter was born that she was going to dance,” Henderson said.
Henderson now picks up her three granddaughters in Walker after school several times a week and transports them to the Jeffie Jean Dance Studio.
“The Jeffie Jean Dance Studio is a family thing,” Henderson said.
“And it seems like everyone has a Jeffie Jean story,” Grantham added. “There was a city councilman here one day. His granddaughter was performing a dance with some students in the ballroom. He pulled me aside and told me about how he once judged a contest with Jeffie Jean.”
She pauses, smiles.
“Everyone has a story,” she said.
But Grantham surely is the person with the most stories. She was close to her mother, and the two performed a duet each year at the June performance.
The performance was always in June, specifically on the first Sunday. Photos of mother and daughter in costume for each of these performances fill a page of a later June show program.
Grantham remembers her mom tapping out one last duo performance before falling ill. Now Grantham and her 11-year-old son Grant are continuing the tradition.
?Grant is your average boy,” Grantham said. “He plays football and likes sports. But he also takes tap.”
In fact, Grantham teaches tap to a number of boys who also are involved in sports. The learning process for any form of dance can be rigorous, but tap can be really brutal, demanding great physical stamina.
“It’s really good exercise, too,” Grantham said.
The boys will join girl students to make up a line of 35 dancers for the showstopping number “70 Feet,” in the Sensational at 70 performance.
Thirty-five dancers, each with two feet. That equals 70. What better way to commemorate a 70th anniversary?
There are so many stories to be told, like how Bolton spent time traveling with her portable record player and case filled with records to teach dance lessons in small communities around the area.
Grantham still uses those records to teach younger students in her beginning classes.
“One student said, ?Miss Jerisse, that’s the biggest CD I’ve ever seen,’” Grantham said, laughing. “I said, ?That’s not a CD, it’s a record.’ Kids today have never seen a record.”
Then there are stories of Bolton’s involvement with the Krewe of Romany in Baton Rouge. Bolton choreographed the balls, and Grantham later served as krewe captain.
Bolton also provided red, white and blue costumes for a patriotic halftime performance by the LSU Golden Girls, and her dancers performed at the opening for the National Sports Festival in Baton Rouge in 1985.
It would be appropriate to borrow a song title from the musical Gypsy at this point to describe Bolton’s shows. They were choreographed in a “Let Me Entertain You” style. The dancing was top-notch and the presentation dazzling.
That’s the spirit Grantham has preserved in her own instruction. It’s one of the things remembered by the students who have passed through this school. It’s no exaggeration to say there have been thousands through the years, from toddlers to adults.
Yes, adults, for Jeffie Jean Dance Studio also has offered ballroom dance instruction. The amazing part is Bolton remembered everyone by name, as does Grantham.
“She even knows whose costume belongs to whom,” Henderson said of Grantham. “The costumes will be in the back, and if one doesn’t have a name on it, she’ll say, ?Oh, that belongs to such-and-such.’”
“It’s important to know your students,” Grantham added. “It’s personal, and they know that I care.”
Grantham’s husband, Larry, probably explained it best.
“He told me, ?See all of these students? In Jerisse’s eyes, all of them are more important than Jerisse,’” he said.
And that’s saying a lot, considering the fact that Grantham is a diabetic. She wears an insulin pump, but she’s never let it stop her from showing up at the dance school on time every day. And it doesn’t stop her from driving to Tulane University in New Orleans to teach tap in the school’s dance department.
So, Grantham’s life is busy. She’s definitely her mom’s daughter, and Jeffie Jean wouldn’t have had it any other way.
But Grantham has stopped in a rare moment to sit down and reflect. She dabs at more tears as she reads other memories in the program. There’s so much to say, so much to cover.
And it’s impossible to cover 70 years in a single afternoon.
So, the framed newspaper articles on the back wall do some of the talking, as does the front wall filled with photographs of performances from years past. And in the next 70 years, students will be telling their memories of Jerisse Grantham, who carried on the tradition of Jeffie Jean.