Diane Hansen: Filling her Mother's Dance ShoesJul 01, 2022 11:02AM ● By Karen Campbell
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Diane Hansen’s first steps could have very well been a shuffle-ball-change or a pirouette.
“From a very young age, maybe at 2 or 3 years old, I started dancing,”said the owner of Kitty Lee Dance Studio, now 65.
It was Diane’s mother, LaVon “Kitty” Lee, a Chicago-born, Chicago company-trained professional dancer, who inspired her daughter and many others in the Omaha community to fall in love with dance. Diane said she was known as “Miss Kitty” to her students.
Talent runs deep in Diane’s family: Kitty’s great-aunt was the famous silent film star Lila Lee. Lila’s son was James Kirkwood Jr., who won a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for writing A Chorus Line. Lila Lee also lived in Chicago and was Kitty’s biggest supporter.
“I loved when my grandmother would tell me about their visits,” Diane said. “Lila Lee would move the furniture aside and just let my mom just dance and dance.”
Kitty’s family moved from Chicago to Omaha, where she continued to perform. Diane said her mom was a big part of Omaha’s Show Wagon, a mobile stage with performers who went to parks and neighborhoods, “back in the day.”
Kitty met and married husband Jack (who also loved to dance) and they remained in Omaha. When their family was young, Kitty wanted to stay home with Diane and her two older brothers, but she also wanted to teach dance.
“She started out teaching neighborhood kids in the basement,” Diane said. “That went really well and her studio just grew.”
Shortly after she started teaching, the family moved to another home in north Omaha near 54th and Browne streets and Kitty taught out of that basement for about 18 years.
While growing up in Omaha, Diane was active in the studio, particularly when it came to choreography. She graduated from Benson High and studied business at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, knowing she would one day take over the business.
While in the middle of her studies, a friend called and asked her to join a dance troupe out of Miami, Florida. Diane grabbed her dance shoes and put a hold on school.
“We joined a USO tour and spent a month in Singapore, traveled up and down the East coast, and went to Madrid,” she said.
It was in Madrid that Diane met her now husband Scott, 70, who has since retired from the Air Force and Union Pacific. The couple wed and had three children—Ryan, 40; Leslie, 37; and Lauren, 34.
The military family moved to Arkansas, Texas, and Illinois. Diane continued to teach dance—she taught on military bases and even had a studio in Lebanon, Illinois, outside Scott Air Force Base, which Diane said “grew like crazy” to the point she would have had to relocate to a bigger town.
“We ended up coming back here and I helped [Kitty] run the business,” she said. “While I was away, though, I would help my mom with the studio from afar.”
The studio continued to flourish, and over the years, as student numbers rose, the studio relocated to rented space at 90th and Blondo streets, 120th and Blondo streets, and 156th Street and West Dodge Road. Kitty continued to run the business like clockwork while Diane taught and helped out with the business. The studio is now located on the southwest corner of 168th & Blondo streets in a building owned by Diane and her husband.
In 1994, Kitty retired. She was 80 years old and wanted to simply enjoy the studio and not experience any of the burdens of the business.
“Even after she retired, she would always come in and help the teachers and be with the kids,” Diane said, smiling. “Everybody really loved her and looked up to her.”
Kitty passed away in 2013 at age 85.
“She was just always right there so when she passed, it was really hard,” Diane said. “She was the best at handling every situation.”
Maintaining a small family business is important to Diane, as it was to Kitty. The studio has four full-time employees, between 10 and 12 part-time staff, and between 475 and 500 students. Diane said she does not have plans to open another studio location.
“We have grown over the years, but have still always kept it a small family business,” she said. “I do not want the studio to ever get so big that I am not hands-on or don’t know every person.”
Following in the footsteps of their mom and grandmother, Diane’s daughters are employed as teachers at the studio and have been in dance all their lives. The majority of her studio’s teachers grew up in Omaha and were dancers there.
Diane, who is a past president of the Omaha Dance Teachers Association, said dance teaches valuable skills and lessons.
“No matter whether a person is going to dance professionally or do something else in life, dance gives them the ability to express themselves and stand in front of people and talk,” she said.
Giving back to the community is an important part of her studio, Diane said. Over the past eight years, the studio has hosted a charity showcase featuring a silent auction and raffle to benefit a designated charity. The event, hosted in conjunction with recitals held the second weekend in June, raises between $12,000 and $16,000 each year.
“The showcase really helps the kids because it gives them a sense of doing something good for the community,” she said.
Many students of Kitty Lee’s have become professional dancers and choreographers, and Kitty Lee and Diane have supported and helped to empower several contestants over the past several years as they have entered the Miss Nebraska pageant.
“Seven Miss Nebraskas and four Junior Misses have come up through our studio,” Diane said.
Morgan Holen, a current MBA student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Miss Nebraska 2021, was a student for 14 years at Kitty Lee, and her family has a connection that goes back long before she was born. Her own mother, Jodi Miller Holen, was Miss Nebraska in 1988.
“My mom started taking dance from Miss Kitty at a young age,” she said. “It was Miss Kitty who encouraged her to compete for Miss Nebraska.”
Morgan Holen said she was able to experience Miss Kitty’s passion for dance and love for her students, and Diane has been instrumental to her success.
“As I performed on the Miss America stage in Connecticut, Diane was in the audience wearing Miss Kitty’s lucky pin and cheering me on,” she said. “I am endlessly grateful for the life lessons learned from Diane and Kitty Lee Dance.”
Diane said competitions and training take up most of her weekends and she is at the studio “just about every day.” She enjoys traveling with her husband and spending time with their children and six grandchildren.
When asked if her daughters will one day take over the studio, Diane responded with a chuckle, “I am sure they will. I won’t be here, but my hope is the studio will be around for at least another hundred years.”
Visit kittyleedance.com for more information.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.