The Oak Park youth dance troupe Just Cause Dancers held its first performance Sunday in front of a crowd that packed First United Methodist Church.

The group of 30 youths ages 4 to 12 performed jazz, hip-hop and even belly dancing among their five routines.

Sunday’s performance at First United, 324 N. Oak Park Ave., was also a fundraiser for the non-profit group founded by Johanna Cousin, 22, a fifth-grade teacher’s assistant at Lincoln Elementary School in Oak Park.

The dancers performed five numbers, dancing all at once and in smaller groups. The group of mostly girls and one boy are from Oak Park and the West Side.

Cousin started the group in April, she said, to give kids a who couldn’t afford to take classes a chance to dance.

“For local dance studios, it’s $85 for six weeks for one dance class,” said Cousin, a dancer since age 4. “I know they can’t afford that, and they don’t have any performance opportunities outside of class. With this, they pay $75 for six months, so it’s giving opportunities for families who can and cannot afford it.”

Cousin danced professionally before starting her teaching career at Lincoln a year ago, including a performance at the 2004 Billboard Music Awards. She danced with the Noir Dance Troupe at Illinois State University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication.

Cousin also wanted to teach dance to kids after seeing how some of them were dancing on the playground before school. They were doing, she noticed, the more provocative dances from music videos.

“I looked at that and said, ‘That’s not right,'” Cousin said. “Just seeing kids on the playground and how they’re dancing, you need someone to mold that structure because they learn that from the videos.”

Ike Smith said he encouraged his 9-year-old daughter, Nia, a student at Beye Elementary, to join the group. Smith saw the squad practicing at Oak Park and River Forest High School’s South Field while jogging, he said.

“She’s been looking for an outlet, and she’s been watching the videos and everything, and I just wanted to get her in a group where the movement wouldn’t be so explicit and where they’d be coaching them on a lot of different types of dances,” he said. “And I told her there are so many different things she can do with it. She can go to college with it, she can get into cheerleading, whatever she wants to do.”

Most of Cousin’s dancers attend Lincoln. Other Just Cause Dancers attend other Oak Park public schools, including Longfellow and Irving.

The troupe performed at a state competition held in July at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, placing third out of five high school teams-they were the only elementary squad in the competition.

Cousin received non-profit status for the dance troupe, which has become a family affair. He parents helped her apply for her status. Other family members serve as dance coaches, volunteers and administrators.

Family members and the mothers of the dancers sported their “Just Cause Moms” T-shirts at Sunday’s performance.

“One of the things we want to do is get the team some publicity and notoriety in the community,” said Julius Riley, administrator for Just Cause and a cousin of Johanna. “Most of these girls are from the Oak Park area and attend Oak Park elementary schools, so it’s just something different for them to do.”

Johanna Cousin’s mother, Janice, said her daughter wanted to do something for younger girls. Janice’s youngest daughter, 10-year-old Aubrea, is also a Just Cause Dancer.

“[Johanna] was on a dance team at Malcolm X College (Chicago) when she was 4-it was a long time ago,” Janice Cousin said. “She got started back in dance in high school and then danced in college. When she came home, she said, ‘Mom, I want to teach; I want to start a dance team.'”

Cousin said some of the group’s funding has come from fundraisers, but she and the other coaches cover most of the group’s expenses out-of-pocket. They’ve held previous fundraisers, but the group basically has no money, Johanna Cousin said.

She would like to send the group to Florida to perform at Disney World’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That will cost about $1,000 per dancer, Cousin said.

Her goal, she said, is to raise money to keep her kids dancing.

“We work hard to try to make sure that everyone can dance,” said Cousin. “Everyone will dance no matter what.”

For more information about the Just Cause Dancers, visit or call 383-4243 or 476-8608.