On November 9, a lovely lady who meant much to Pascagoulans left this world. Jo Ann Christopher, the creator of the Studio of Dance and Gymnastics and the Melange Dance Company, plus the mastermind behind our yearly “The Nutcracker Suite” presentations, will long be remembered for her significant cultural contributions to our city.
Jo Ann grew up in Mobile and graduated from Murphy High School, the city’s classic old secondary institution. A very talented dancer from a young age, she went on to study at the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School.
After returning from her studies, Jo Ann came to work in Jackson County as a dance teacher for Marguerite Nelson. When Mrs. Nelson retired, Jo Ann began her career in Pascagoula by opening the Studio of Dance and Gymnastics. She formed the Melange Dance Company in 1977, and the Company first performed “The Nutcracker”, in December of 1978. In the more than four decades since, “The Nutcracker” has become a much anticipated annual Christmas tradition in Pascagoula, presented by local talent in great style.
“It would be hard for me to estimate the number of dancers Jo Ann has influenced in her lifetime,” said Callie Murray Randle, who performed in “The Nutcracker” as a youngster from 1985-1992, and, like many, has watched her daughter follow in her footsteps in recent years. “She has taught hundreds and hundreds of dancers over the years and had such a positive effect on so many local young ladies.
“Jo Ann’s lifetime mission was to teach young dancers not just the art of dance, but the entire experience of the theatre—etiquette, lights, sound, costuming, rehearsals, dedication, work ethic—the entire realm of the art. Her creativity had no equal, and I do not think the general public realizes the hours and hours she dedicated to “The Nutcracker” in particular, or the level of theatre production she brought to and grew in our community.”
Callie’s respect and love for Jo Ann are shared by so many in the community. Here are just a few examples from those who knew her well (I could have had a hundred of these).
- Mary Jones: “My love for Ms. Jo Ann began when I, at six years old, walked into a dance studio in Mobile where she then worked. Jo Ann, knowing that I would never be a prima ballerina, inspired me, pushed me, corrected me, and loved me unconditionally. She reminds me of a saying I once read—‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.’ Ms. Jo Ann’s legacy will be sharing her gifts, every day of her life. Dance with the angels, Jo Ann—I will love you forever.”
- Felicia Busby (current owner of Studio of Dance): “From the age of 8 to 58, I was blessed to have Jo Ann Christopher as a second mother. She expected more of me than I expected of myself. She made me a better person. Lucky me, to have known, loved, and been loved by Jo Ann.”
- Dylan Demouey (current Artistic Director of Melange Dance Company): “For me, Jo Ann was a teacher and mentor who ended up becoming a colleague and friend. She was family. The impact she had on my life reached much further than an education in the art of dance. Her guidance, support, and love helped shape me into the person I am today.”
These testimonials show just what a positive influence Jo Ann Christopher had on her students and on local families, and how much she was truly loved. Again, I could have filled pages with comments like these.
I certainly didn’t know Jo Ann as well as the above individuals, but I did know her and had a lot of affection and respect for her. I don’t have a ton of regrets about my life, but one I do have concerns Jo Ann. About 25 or so years ago, she asked me to play Herr Drosselmeyer in “The Nutcracker,” he being pretty much the major non-dancing character. I loved the idea, but I said no—the old “too busy with the job” deal. Man, I should have done that. It’s OK, though: just to be asked to perform by Jo Ann Christopher is an honor I will always cherish.
It seems partly sad and partly appropriate that this year’s “The Nutcracker” will be performed this weekend (November 19 -20) at the Pascagoula High School Performing Arts Center, so soon after we lost Jo Ann. There will be a memorial service held for Ms. Christopher on November 22 at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Mobile.
We all know this: when “The Nutcracker” is performed this year and in all years to come, Jo Ann will be looking down on the stage from above, nodding and smiling. Jo Ann Christopher made a huge difference in Pascagoula, and her legacy will live on through all the Claras, Snow Queens, and Sugar Plum Fairies to come, and through all the many lives she touched in our community.