This Hot Springs High School Teacher Helped to Transform the Inner-City School's Dance Program

Photo by Aaron Brewer, courtesy of Amy Bramlett Turner

In Take the Lead, actor Antonio Banderas wins over a group of reluctant inner-city students with a racy tango performance. While the 2006 film was inspired by Pierre Dulaine, ballroom dancer and founder of Dancing Classrooms, teaching in a public school is rarely as easy as it looks in the movies. From financial challenges to lack of administrative support and parental involvement, public-school teaching differs greatly from the studio environments in which most dance educators began their own training. We asked several public-school teachers to share their passion for the hardest job they've ever done. —Kat Richter

Amy Bramlett Turner

Hot Springs World Class High School

Hot Springs, Arkansas

My school is in the inner-city district, where 100 percent of our students have free lunch, are on food backpack programs and come from low-income, at-risk homes or may even be classified as homeless. Before I started teaching, I saw that the kids had to pay for their costumes at a school concert. The kids who couldn't afford costumes had to stand onstage in T-shirts and jazz pants. It was really exclusionary, and I knew I didn't want that.

During my first three years, the school district built a dance studio at every campus (elementary, intermediate, middle and high school), yet I taught without a budget the first two years. I reached out to community organizations and wrote grants. We sold everything from headbands to candy to cookie dough. It wasn't fun, but we raised $20,000 in the first year. Now we can provide all of the students with real costumes, shoes and tights. We also have money to bring in guest artists or go see professional shows. Between teaching, fundraising, maintaining social-media accounts for our dance programs and sometimes even driving my students from one campus to another, I feel like I work 24/7, but I wouldn't want to do it in any other district.

Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

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Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

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Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

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