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VOL. 37 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 19, 2013

Franklin couple hops on top with Zinghoppers

By Tony Troiano

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J-Star, DJ Kitty – Franklin’s Jack and Kitty Norton – and the rest of the Emmy-winning Zinghoppers crew have found success on stage, TV (100 PBS stations and 174 countries), CDs, DVD and toys.

-- Jeremy Stanley For The Zinghoppers Group, Llc

One of Nashville’s hottest bands has excitable groupies, a Grammy nomination, thousands of social media followers and a high-powered fan base that includes Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban.

The band’s music won’t show up on country, Americana Roots or indie charts. This Franklin-based group targets a very different demographic: Preschoolers.

Known as The Zinghoppers, or The Fab Five, if you prefer, the performers are a quirky combination of real people and dancing Mascots: Penelope Funky Possum, J-Star, DJ Kitty, Olo the Donkey and Coconuts the Kangaroo.

Created by Jack (J-Star) and Kitty (DJ Kitty) Norton, former school teachers from Franklin, the ’hoppers offer up high-energy dance music, described in the New York Times as “Barney meets the Black-Eyed Peas.’’

“What better way to connect with a child than with hip-hop music, fun mascots and dancing,” Jack explains.

Live performances, the TV show on PBS, the music videos and music downloads are designed to encourage children to participate – to dance, sing and hop along.

The Zinghoppers’ TV show picked up an Emmy in 2012 as Best Children’s Program. The group received a Grammy nomination and hosted the first-ever Web concert for families at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

More than 100 PBS stations nationwide broadcast the program, which, internationally, is seen daily by nearly 2 million people in 174 countries daily. It also is broadcast by the Department of Defense on the AFN Family Channel for military families worldwide.

Zinghopper.com has more than 100,000 visits monthly.

“When Kitty and I were teaching, we entertained our classes with sing-a-longs, puppets and other ways to capture their attention,’’ Jack says.

“It motivated the kids and fosters learning. We knew we were on to something.”

The Nortons were teaching and entertaining schoolchildren at parties, churches and fundraisers when word began to spread, allowing the couple to leave classroom teaching to perform full time at venues such as schools and libraries, and at theaters with as many as 2,000-seats.

“Our 3-year-old boy gets so excited when he sees the Zinghoppers,” says Clarrisa Farrell of Brentwood. “Their message is wonderful, and you can see the kids just soaking it up. I don’t know what this says, but my husband knows all the songs and hums them often.”

Like Sesame Street Live, Barney or Raffi, The Zinghoppers supplement bookings by selling merchandise such as CDs, DVDs and toys. Thay also attract outside attention from interested businesses wanting to jump on the ’hopper bandwagon.

“We enjoy being independent,” says Jack. “We do things the way we want to and have the freedom to take the content where we desire. We’re always learning as we go. It’s all about providing a positive outlet for the kids.”

Kitty produces all of the music CDs. She and Jack co-direct all of the DVDs.

The Zinghoppers’ performances – some of which are free – have a social aspect in which children learn to listen and follow directions.

The dancing is designed to improve motor skills and coordination. Images and pictures are used to help with comprehension.

Each exercise is a foundation for literacy, and it puts a smile on children’s faces, parents say.

Joseph Wenger, who lives in Franklin, is the father of a 2-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy.

“The Zinghoppers can bring kids out of their shell,’’ he says. “They interact with other children, singing and dancing.

“My kids went in shy, and when we got home it was Zinghoppers the rest of the day. A monster was created, but it is a good monster.”

The music video world premiere of “Haircut Party’’ is July 24 on iTunes, a 10 a.m. launch with children’s schedules in mind. Meanwhile, the band is playing in venues across the country.

“What we do doesn’t feel like work,” Kitty says. “We’re proud of what we have developed. How rewarding it is to see wide-eyed children laughing and bouncing around. Our entire act encompasses elements to captivate and educate.

“We keep things simple, age appropriate. You have to have a delicate balance. You want to challenge the children, but you don’t want to confuse or frustrate them.”

Sometimes the group is split, with Jack going one way, Kitty the other. Shows can include players hired locally or can professional dancers and entertainers.

Tennessee Titans cheerleader, dance instructor and choreographer Stephanie Clark works with The Zinghoppers.

“The performances are current and upbeat,’’ she says. “It’s a great way to open the kids’ minds. I enjoy the work and even listen to Zinghoppers’ CDs in my car.”

Millie Martin, a Nashville Predators cheerleader and dance instructor, agrees: “Jack and Kitty have done a fantastic job. The components stimulate activity and the end result is learning. I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Nashville Parent magazine has named the group Nashville’s top children’s entertainers for four consecutive years.

Celebrities such as Kidman and Urban, Brad and Kimberly Williams-Paisley, the Kings of Leon and Mike Wolfe, star of the hit TV show, American Pickers, are fans and have attended performances with their children.

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