About the Author and Illustrator:
Mary Alpha (Johnson) Donnelly and her Magical Kingdom of Dance have inspired decades of little ballerinas to learn basic ballet steps and a long-lasting love of dance through the use of illustrations, stories and poems about memorable characters in her encyclopedia of dance.
At the fresh age of 23, Mary Alpha opened her first dance studio, The Alpha School of Dance in 1950s Meridian, Mississippi and quickly made a name for herself as a dance expert in the small southern town. Through teaching at her studio, assisting contestants in local beauty pageants, choreographing for theater troupes like the Meridian Little Theatre and even sharing agility exercises with the high school's football team, Mary Alpha's love and respect of dance was clear to those around her. Her three daughters, Robin, Ree and Tonie tagged along with their mother to these events and quickly grew to share her love of dance. They loved seeing their mother in action and Tonie even nicknamed her mother "Mary-Go-Alpha" for her tendency to be on-the-go at all times.
Mary Alpha became a faculty member of the National Association of Dance and Affiliated Artists, Dance Educators of America, Dance Caravan and other renowned organizations that allowed her to teach young ballerinas-to-be across the country. While this required her to travel frequently, she was able to include her daughters in her adventures and began to notice a trend throughout the dance world. Dancers in training seemed to struggle with the complicated French terms of basic dance moves and had trouble remembering which name paired with which step. During her travels to and fro, Mary Alpha began to develop an idea to help dancers recall tricky names and complex steps and the "ABCs of Dance" began to blossom.
The more she traveled, the more ideas she had and before she knew it, Mary Alpha had created an entire kingdom of dance full of over 200 illustrated pages and characters named after specific ballet moves. Each character's name fit its natural movement with monikers like Plié the bending cricket, Sauté the hopping bunny and Relevé the graceful giraffe. Mary Alpha even added original poems about famous ballets, a ballerina heroine named Twinkletoes and an accompanying instructional mat called the Alphamat, so dancers could easily learn the foot steps. Each dancer stands on her own mat inside a "house"following instructions like "righty red" and "lefty blue," carrying their feet through a story book of characters laid out on the mat around the house's "yard."
"I can remember my mother working on this mat every spare minute," Tonie says. "She believed in the saying that 'one picture is worth a thousand words.' She knew that if a student could see where to put her feet and see the term spelled out - along with the animal that is associated with each term - that learning to dance would be a whole new world."
The use of Mary Alpha's encyclopedia and Alphamat changed the way she taught dance to young students and even carried on to her enthusiastic daughters. Both Robin Owen and Tonie Bense opened their own studios in Nashville, TN and Panama City, FL, respectively, utilizing their mother's familiar cast of characters and easy-to-use mat. Mary Alpha continued to promote her Magical Kingdom of Dance, hoping it might gain national attention and even received several offers from dance supply manufacturers, but the offers weren't quite what she was looking for. She marketed her project independently through her trips to conventions and was even teaching up until her 87th birthday.
As age forced Mary Alpha to slow down, she has retired from teaching with 67 years experience and a lifetime of love for dance. Her daughters, her students and her Magical Kingdom of Dance continue to inspire young ballerinas across the country to plie, sauté and sashay their way through dance and life with vigor, enthusiasm, dedication and twinkling toes, just like Mary Alpha herself.