Warning: An uncharacteristic “sappy” post follows. My dance teacher of 7 years, Shirlene Gills, passed away Saturday, August 20, 2011. Ever since I learned of her death it has been on my heart to write down just what she meant to me.
In 1995, I changed dance studios to a relatively new one in my hometown. Rather than have my mom traverse 45 miles – one way – at least once a week for classes, we joined Shirlene School of Dance and never looked back. At the time I would never know what a blessing it was that she would be my teacher, nor would I realize what a positive impact she would have on my life – not only as a dancer, but as a human being as well.
Her studio was across the street from the courthouse in an old office building. The door was painted hot pink and in the window she had placed a “life-size” ballerina sculpture she had created in college from scrap metal that sat atop a record player. If it wasn’t for that sculpture, you’d never even know it was a dance studio.
Her studio was nothing fancy – the waiting room held dark green plastic patio chairs, but once you passed the half wall that separated the waiting room to the studio and watched Shirlene teach you knew something amazing would go out that hot pink door. When she wasn’t she was sitting in her vintage wheeled office chair taking choreography notes or picking out costumes, she was on the plywood studio floor dancing full out with us. Whether it was for a fair talent show, a regional dance competition, a nursing home performance or her annual recital, every piece of her choreography was special.
Shirlene was a rare talent in a small southern Arkansas town. She had studied dance under some of the greats, like José Limón and Bill Cratty, and imparted so much of her training and knowledge to small town girls who otherwise would have never been exposed. Mrs. Shirlene is the reason I know who Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan are and I credit her for my appreciation of contemporary choreography today. In any genre of choreography, Shirlene was never afraid to stretch our abilities, never afraid to think outside of the box. From ballet, tap and jazz, to hip hop and modern to liturgical, we danced it all under her guidance.
She challenged us, especially the seniors by requiring us to choreograph our own solo. It was like our dancer’s rite of passage. She was there to offer suggestions and encourage us along the way but ultimately the piece was up to us. From the style, to the music, to the costume, we owned that piece of the recital and while stressful, I think every senior who had to go through that process came out more confident and creative.
I remember my senior solo rehearsals like it was yesterday. I wanted to do a tap piece, so I rented all of the great Gregory Hines videos I could get my hands on, ultimately falling in love with the movie “TAP!”. I came in to my first “rehearsal” with Mrs. Shirlene excited about all of the steps I had seen in that movie and impatient to begin working them into my solo. The whole time, she sat by her desk to the right of the studio floor - which was covered in mountains of CDs – while sipping on her Sonic Route 44 drink, smiling and offering gentle guidance here and there. We’d listen to the music together, I’d try to fit a step in and when it didn’t work we’d start the process over again. She had more patience than anyone should be given.
No matter what, Mrs. Shirlene supported us, not only in the studio but outside of it as well. She had a vested interest in each and every one of her students. She wanted us to succeed.
And at that final “senior solo” rehearsal? She’d present a graduation gift: “Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives” by Laura C. Schlessinger. She made me promise to read it before going off to college. It was her way of pushing us out of the studio nest and I still have that book to this day.
Mrs. Shirlene, Thank you for being such an amazing role model for all of your students. Thank you for challenging us, listening to us and molding us. I hope you know just how many lives you impacted through your dance and your character. You will always be an inspiration in my life and for that, I am forever grateful. May you rest in peace.