Life is Sweet
To hear Kim McSwain tell her Lifetime movie–worthy story brings to mind the cliché, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Having overcome the tragic loss of her husband and a crippling dance injury that almost halted her career, this dynamic dance teacher is proof positive that it can be done—and she’s done it all with a smile. “People remark all the time, ‘You’re so positive in spite of all the stuff you’ve gone through,’” says McSwain. “Though I wouldn’t wish these things on anyone, they helped me realize just how strong I was.”
That strength and shine is exactly what inspires the hundreds of students who pack McSwain’s classrooms at the JUMP convention weekend after weekend. McSwain uses her own experience of having been partially paralyzed to elicit appreciation for movement in her students: “I always sit the kids down and say, ‘Imagine that this combo is the last time you will ever dance.’ Then I turn on the music and tell them to picture what they’d look like the last time they get to do something they care about. Dancing isn’t about trophies, turns in second or recognition—it’s about that feeling right there.”
McSwain has been cultivating that feeling all her life, having danced since the age of 3. Growing up in Garland, TX, McSwain did it all, from gymnastics to ballet to pageants to twirling. Though six days a week of various classes might be overkill for some kids, McSwain loved every minute of it. “For me, dance was an escape,” she says.
Since her training at Dallas Dance Academy was almost exclusively ballet, she jumped at the chance to spend her 18th summer in California training at Dee and Tina Caspary’s Studio C learning new genres. “I remember walking into my first jazz class with Tina, who is gorgeous and amazing,” says McSwain. “She told me to take my hair out of the bun, and I did because I wanted to be just like her!”
It wasn’t long before McSwain did follow in Caspary’s footsteps, teaching classes and acting as assistant director of a studio when she returned to Dallas. McSwain was on the verge of opening her own studio with a group of friends and investors when tragedy struck: Her husband of three months, a Navy fighter pilot, was killed in a head-on jet collision. “It was the worst time of my life. I quit dancing; my heart just wasn’t in it,” she says. “I decided I didn’t want to own a business. But I did want to teach, to dance.”
Opportunity presented itself again when friend and convention director Jeremy Keeton enlisted McSwain to teach classes at Adrenaline Dance. She also got the chance to sub for Mia Michaels one weekend at JUMP, and afterward she was hired as faculty. That was when life intervened again. In July 2005, McSwain demonstrated a piece of choreography with disastrous results. “I did a head roll, heard a pop and suddenly felt lightning down the left side of my body,” she says. She didn’t think much of the incident until she awoke the next morning unable to lift her head from the pillow. She sought the help of a chiropractor, who placed her in a neck brace (which she promptly decorated with a bow tie and rhinestones).
Thinking she was on the road to recovery, she soon discovered otherwise. “I was standing in front of 200 kids at an in-studio convention and my left arm started to throb,” she recalls. “It dropped and just stopped working. Here I am in this neck brace, doing a combo full-on with floorwork, and my arm is flopping around like it’s detached.” This time there was no ignoring the severity of the injury—McSwain had ruptured a disc in her neck. It was embedded in her spinal cord, paralyzing the entire left side of her body. A risky surgery would be required that could leave her fully paralyzed for life.
“I was in complete and utter denial—losing the ability to dance was like losing a part of me,” says McSwain. “I wrote my surgeon a letter saying, ‘This is all I have and all I care about. Dance is the only thing I know how to do. Please fix me.’”
The surgery was a success and a relieved and grateful McSwain took the two following years to recover and give birth to her daughter, Bella. In late 2007, McSwain returned to the JUMP stage to teach jazz and hip hop. Though she hasn’t looked back since, she says that at first it was somewhat daunting: “I was scared that if I did one chaîné, my head would roll off!” she jokes.
Today, McSwain considers herself a survivor, and that perspective helps her relate to dancers of all ages, shapes and sizes. Known to teach class by candlelight, she calls on her hard-earned sense of empathy and compassion to create a supportive environment: “If I see a girl flailing around in the back, I will stop the entire class and let her perform. I tell them to look at her soul, passion and heart, and it’s amazing what happens to the room,” she says. “One time, a 16-year-old came up to me and said, ‘This class was the first time I have ever felt pretty,’ and she just lost it. Those are the kids I give extra attention to.”
McSwain’s knack for making meaningful connections with students hasn’t gone unnoticed by JUMP founder Gil Stroming. “Kim has a unique ability to inspire dancers of all ages and levels,” he says. “I’m not a fan of dance teachers who cater only to the top 10 percent of the class and neglect the other dancers in the room. Kim treats every dancer she’s teaching like they could be the next superstar.”
Of course, McSwain’s classes aren’t all sentiment and no sass. She insists that dancers go full-out—in performance and in life. “I tell them, ‘If you don’t like this combo or this class and don’t want to give me every bit of your body and soul, then you need to go out in the hallway and make room for the rest of us who want to get down right now,’” says McSwain. “If they’re at a 7, I try to bring them to a 12!”
As for McSwain herself, moving forward with gusto has been exactly what the doctor ordered. She and her family recently relocated from Dallas to the New York City area. “I feel like I’m starting to live again,” she says, “and I know 100 percent that this is where I’m supposed to be and that dance is what I’m supposed to be doing.” DT
A former hip-hop, cheerleading and dance fitness instructor, Jen Jones has a BS in magazine journalism and is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.