We're privileged to honor four extraordinary educators with this year's Dance Teacher Awards in August at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. The awardees include Julie Kent, Djana Bell, Rhonda Miller, Sue Samuels and Stephanie Kersten.
On June 12, 2016, after a day of teaching for Music 'n Motion dance camp in Orlando, high school dance teacher Stephanie Kersten went out to the Pulse nightclub with her co-workers. "I was only there for an hour before the shooting took place," she says. "We were stuck inside for a good 30 minutes before, thank God, I was pulled out. I was actually on my hands and knees praying in a closet: 'Please just get us out. I just want to get home to my kids.'"
Despite severe shock and a shoulder injury, Kersten was back teaching the next day, the option to leave her students in the lurch unthinkable. "It wasn't about me surviving that," she says. "It was about my students helping me through what had happened to me. They helped me keep going."
It's that unflinching dedication and positive attitude in the face of extreme hardship that sets Kersten apart as an educator. After the shooting, she has a renewed sense of gratitude for her life, family, students and dance—a sentiment that she shares with her students whenever she can. "She always says, 'Dance for those who can't,'" says Jaliyah Kersten, Stephanie's second-oldest daughter and a junior on the Lake Mary High School dance team that Kersten coaches. Last year, Kersten choreographed a special piece for the dance team to honor the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting.
Kersten has been teaching high school students since 2005, when she took over the Marionettes dance team at Lake Mary. When she got the job, she was excited by the team's potential for growth. "When I first came, all they did was kick [routines]," she says. She quickly set to work expanding the 23-dancer team and adding more dance styles—jazz, hip hop, pom—to the team's repertoire. Today, the squad has grown to nearly 90 members, and Kersten has led them to win 21 national titles.
Kersten has always made time to talk to her students about the positive role dance can play in their lives, but now she has firsthand experience to draw upon. "I want them to know that the choices we make today shape who we are in the future," she says, ready to shape them into not only stellar dancers but also stellar people. "Teaching in the high school setting," she says, "we can really guide them to make positive, healthy choices."