It takes only a few moments in Janice Holst’s presence to get a sense of the energy that has carried her through more than 50 years of teaching dance. It comes through in her expressions, in the carriage of her petite frame, and in the way she tells a story — quickly and with colorful details, humor and occasional snatches of song.
At the end of September, Holst closed up her dance studio, the Janice D. Holst School of Dance, after 35 years in Juneau. But her “retirement” is unlikely to mark a sudden shift to a sedentary lifestyle. She’s got lots of ideas, which include attending her fifth high school reunion in early October — a trip that hasn’t been possible in the past due to her teaching schedule — and maybe writing a book, as well as continuing to stay connected to the dance community in an advisory role. Deciding to leave her dancers was the hardest part of closing the studio, Holst said.
“I loved each one of them,” Holst said. “It’s like a garden. You have a shy little violet, or a big bold tiger lily, or you have a fragile rose. I had a great garden — and no weeds.“
Over the years, Holst’s energy has fed not only her dance classes, but a range of long-term community service projects, from small-scale performances in local nursing homes to a major statewide fundraising effort for cancer research that brought in more $300,000 for the cause. Much of her public service work has used dance as a vehicle for building community enthusiasm and awareness, such as her Dancers Against Drugs program, offered as part of Red Ribbon Week, that stresses healthy lifestyles for youth.
A quick look at some facts offers a glimpse of how busy Holst has been:
• 53 years teaching dance classes
• 35 years running Janice Holst School of Dance in Juneau
• 35 years of Sunshine Showcase, good-will recitals at nursing homes and other venues
• 35 Grumpsicle performances, a holiday-themed musical involving a large local cast and crew
• 27 years in Juneau Rotary
• 25 years coordinating Dancers Against Drugs
• 18 seasons of the Gold Nugget Review at the Thane Ore House, Juneau’s longest running tourist show.
Over the years she’s also been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council (in 2009), won the Mother of the Year award (in 1987), and was named Pacific Northwest Volunteer of the Year (in 1982), among other distinctions.
Holst’s involvement in the community began almost immediately upon her arrival in town in 1978, a move prompted by her husband Butch’s relocation through the US Coast Guard. Initially, however, she wasn’t thrilled to be here.
“I cried all the way down the Garden State Parkway,” Holst said of leaving her home in New Jersey. “And I swore I would never teach dance again, because I hated to leave all those dancers.”
She pictured Juneau as a cold, boring place, with no real arts scene.
“I figured ‘Alaska?! I’m not taking a leotard up there!’ I was such an East Coast crazy person.”
While staying at the Prospector Hotel right after the move, Holst was encouraged to explore by her husband. Ignoring her protests, he dropped her off in front of the Juneau Douglas Little Theater downtown and told her he’d pick her up in an hour. Inside, JDLT was rehearsing for their production of “Cinderella,” so Holst sat down to watch. Soon someone approached her and asked her her name.
“I said ‘Janice Holst, and I just got here.’ And she said ‘Oh! You’re that choreographer from the East Coast! If I turn ‘Cinderella’ from a play into a musical, will you put some dancers together?’”
Holst couldn’t resist and by the end of the show had about 35 students signed up. She began her dance studio soon thereafter.
Holst said at that point Juneau Dance Unlimited had been established as an umbrella organization for various dance groups, and that there was a lot of activity through other organizations as well. The dance scene — and arts community in general — was much more active than she’d expected.
“I was flabbergasted,” Holst said. “It was amazing to me.”
In spite of her new-found appreciation for Juneau, the Holsts and their four children might have moved on after a few years if not for an unforeseen development, one that changed all their lives dramatically. Their son, Caje, was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 15 in 1979, losing first one leg, then the other to the disease. Holst said the enormous outpouring of support for Caje and for their family, and Caje’s own attachment to the community, kept them from going anywhere after they got the diagnosis.
“He had so many friends here. And it was like a magic place. We weren’t going to leave,” she said.
Though given six months to live, Caje persevered, inspiring others with his positive attitude and sense of humor. He continued to be very physically active, winning wrestling matches with only one leg, and playing basketball once he was in a wheelchair. Caje died in 2006, 27 years after he was given his six-month diagnosis, after having lived a full life, marrying and fathering two daughters.
“He was very brave, he never felt sorry for himself,” Holst said.
Caje’s illness inspired his mother to launch a fundraising campaign for cancer research, beginning with a local radio telethon on KINY. It was supposed to be two hours long, but ended up being five due to local support. The next day Holst got a call from Gov. Hammond’s office. Unsure what he wanted, Holst wondered if she could be in trouble with the FCC for staying on the air that long.
“I thought ‘I’m going to be arrested — FCC laws or whatever — and Butch is going to get kicked out of the coast guard,’” Holst recalled.
But the governor wanted her to take the project statewide, and offered to help make it happen. She took him up on it and launched the Alaskan Cancer Research Telethon in 1980.
“They piped us in to 167 towns and villages and people were calling in from everyplace,” Holst said. “It was fabulous. Even people who couldn’t give money would come and bring loaves of banana bread to the people in the studio.”
By the end of it, she’d raised more than $330,000, “every penny” of which went to cancer research.
The project led to Holst’s being named Mother of the Year in 1987, which in turn prompted her to launch Dancers Against Drugs, a program she’s produced in Juneau for the past 25 years, one that encourages kids to be healthy and positive about life.
Through it all, she’s been dancing — with hundreds, if not thousands, of local kids, including, at this point, most of her 12 grandchildren, 10 of whom live in Juneau. And through it all she’s had her husband, Butch, by her side; the Holsts celebrated 50 years of marriage in 2011.
As for her next move, Holst isn’t easy to pin down.
“(My plans are) subject to change at any moment,” she said. “I’m ready for anything.”
•Contact Arts editor Amy Fletcher at email@example.com.