Courtney Vandiver walked toward the tall, off-white credenza in the corner of the studio, above which hung two loose coloring sheets with pink crayon streaks bleeding from the bold, black outlines of butterfly wings. About eight feet of blue masking tape formed an “L” shape around the credenza.
Before the class began and the girls were still giggling and adjusting their leotards, Courtney told me she had placed the tape there one stressful day, warning her students not to cross the line. She needed some personal space. On cue, one of the dancers, Michelle, crawled toward the blue line with mischief in her eyes and a laugh threatening to escape her tightened lips. Courtney cut her eyes at the girl but couldn’t suppress a smile. When Michelle inserted one limb then another into the square, she was rewarded with an amused, dismissive, and mildly-affectionate expression from her instructor.
“I guess I have no personal space.”
Courtney’s thin fingers glide across buttons on a CD player sitting atop the credenza, and music begins to vibrate through the room, bringing with it a breeze of invisible color to the white walls and a whisper of energy in each little girl’s ear that prompts her to rise and begin the number again. Again. Again.
The girls’ movements are precise, coordinated. Each is keenly aware of her own physique in relation to the surrounding dancers. They’re preparing for the dress rehearsal next week that will take place before their competition in Murfreesboro the following week. Not all the dance classes are competitive, but this one is. They’ll be performing the dress rehearsal in full costume—group and solo performances of all ages—with parents, siblings, and instructors watching on the sidelines, so to speak. That day must be perfect, and apparently there’s still a lot of work to do.
The Valarie Spragins School of Dance (now known as VSS Dance), located in Bemis, Tennessee—just south of downtown Jackson—began in 1986 as a once-a-week class with eight students who met at the local community center. Valarie had been dancing since grade school and working as an instructor for ten years. When she was nine months pregnant with her second child, she decided to give up teaching, never intending to go back. Then one day, a neighbor asked if she would teach a class again. What started out as eight students became twenty-four that fall, and by the next year, she had over fifty.
With the consistent growth, it became time to find a location of their own. They moved her classes to a little studio by Southside High School—a building many locals will recall as having once displayed a massive mural of ballet shoes on the exterior wall. For the next nineteen years, this is where she would hire additional instructors and teach her students, several of whom she would later hire as instructors themselves.
Courtney Vandiver, Veronica Sesson, and Polly Robison began taking lessons at Valarie’s studio as elementary-age children. They now all have children of their own, some of whom take lessons at the school. There was a period of time when Courtney had stopped taking classes. She remembers coming back and feeling overwhelmingly behind in her skill level. So for hours Valarie would sit on the studio floor with a composition notebook, drilling Courtney on French ballet terminology and techniques to help her catch up with the other students. Courtney said that during these years of her life, she lacked stability in her home, so the dance school provided a sense of structure and security that she deeply needed.
Veronica’s parents wanted to expose her and her two sisters to everything they could—music, dance, sports—to give them an opportunity to find something they each enjoyed and were good at. She was the youngest of three girls and was accustomed to always trying the next new thing with her sisters. But after experimenting with dance for a while, she didn’t want to leave when it came time to try something else. Veronica wasn’t one to voice her opinion very loudly, though.
“I just did whatever I was told,” she said.
So, she came up with a strategy.
“I got a call one day from Veronica’s dad,” Valarie explained.
They greeted each other before an awkward silence settled on each end of the line. It was Valarie who spoke first.
“Can I help you with anything?”
“Well, I was just returning your call,” he answered.
It wasn’t long before they realized Veronica had written “Call Ms. Valarie” on a sticky note near the phone, hoping her dad would get the hint. Apparently he did because she’s been either dancing or teaching dance there ever since.
“We tell our students very young that a dancer is not trained overnight. If you truly want to be a dancer, it’s a lifelong commitment,” Valarie said. “You’re going to put in fifteen years here and then go on somewhere else.”
In a small area such as South Jackson, the same families have lived together for generations, and people don’t leave very often. The benefit of that is a deep sense of community and belonging. A downside, though, is the lack of exposure people have to experiences outside of that community.
Valarie was first introduced to the world of dance in elementary school when her friend Wanna Martin’s mom brought Valarie to her daughter’s dance class. She was the one who convinced Valarie’s mom to let her take lessons.
“I was exposed, and once I was exposed, I was hooked,” Valarie said. “But a lot of my friends weren’t exposed to it. There was nobody I had much in common with.”
People in the community were extremely invested in the school system because the schools their kids attended were the same schools the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents attended growing up. Activities such as dance that weren’t based in the school system felt foreign to a lot of people—almost like a betrayal.
While it’s always been difficult teaching the art of dance in a rural, West Tennessee town, Valarie knew that if she could get buy-in from the community, it would be more than just a dance studio; it would become a family. The instructors admit that it’s not easy teaching dance in this area, where they seem to always be competing with softball for the girls’ time and interest. But it’s worth it, because, as Courtney says, “I’m shaping lives, not dancers.”
Many people who live in North Jackson or midtown tend to stay away from South Jackson and Chester County and Bolivar. They hear rumors of a high crime rate and don’t venture far past the Fairgrounds. But Valarie says that what outsiders assume is not what the locals experience. To them, it’s a quiet place packed with decades of memories, and they don’t want any of that to change. To some extent, they don’t mind the assumptions that keep people at a distance, because maybe if fewer people want to come visit, there won’t be as much change.
“We get a bad rap, but it’s a nice place to live,” Valarie said. “Only people who have never experienced this kind of community wouldn’t know where to look for it.”
The dancers put on their costumes with the help of many moms who usually don’t come back to this part of the studio except to carry hangers weighted with sparkly dresses and to zip and button the hard-to-reach places. Pastel cupcakes wait patiently in a box nearby. The girls will be returning to this room for an after-rehearsal, parent-free party where they’ll put on jeans and t-shirts and eat pizza on the floor and tell me about the kind of mousse and gel and hairspray they use to coerce their long locks into being perfectly pulled back and shiny.
They walk out the front door of the studio tucked between several businesses including Direct Hit Guns and Ammo, Vantreese Discount Pharmacy, and Mane Attractions Salon. The school is spread between one section of the strip mall and another section two doors down. The girls walk alongside the red brick buildings until they reach the other studio where large frames filled with staged pictures of dancers from classes past decorate the interior walls. At the back of the room, another CD player sits on a shelf, surrounded by miscellaneous papers and other shelves positioned higher on the wall that are packed with trophies of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Most have multiple ribbons hanging from the sides.
Polly stands next to the CD player to announce the next performer as it will sound on stage next week then cues the music. A group of short, chubby-cheeked girls who can’t be more than five or six years old perform first. This group isn’t off to a great start, so Valarie tells them to enter one more time and try it again. The girls giggle as they go back to the small room to start over. The next time is better, and the dads wearing work boots and ball caps with their jeans and t-shirts, arms crossed as they lean against the wall behind their wives, smile slightly as they watch their little girls’ movements in front of the mirror.
The sharp click of a tap dancer’s shoes claims the attention of every person in the room. Polly waits with a clipboard next to the CD player in the doorway of a small adjoining room. As the tap dancer finishes her performance, Polly reaches for her hand to give it a reas-
Next, one of the older dancers performs to the song “Believer” by Imagine Dragons. Another group of girls glides around the room in black and red tutus with fluffy, faux roses attached to their buns. Moms wearing proud expressions pull out their phones to take videos, and before long, they’re gathering their daughters’ things before leaving them so they can celebrate the upcoming competition with the other dancers and instructors.
Back in the studio with the cupcakes, I lean into a six-person circle of conversation with greasy napkins and near-empty coke cans.
“How long have you been dancing?” I ask the group.
Several of them stare over at the wall, deep in thought, as if recollecting memories from a lifetime ago.
One of the girls, who couldn’t be more than ten or eleven years old, says, “I think seven years maybe.” The others have similar responses. I wonder to myself what keeps these girls coming back—week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s not easy, and there comes a time for each dancer when she wants to quit: when progress feels slower than it’s ever been, when she’s sick of doing it all again and again and again and getting what seems to be no return for the effort. But the dancers find a reason to stay that’s more appealing than the temptation to quit.
“If the parents have to push them to come back, it doesn’t last very long,” Valarie said. “The kids who don’t love it enough to perform don’t last. The first time I stepped out on a stage, I was hooked. I was a very shy child, but the stage was a different place. On the stage, I could be someone else.”
VSS Dance is located at 1463 South Highland Avenue. To learn more, call them at 731.427.8388 or visit their website.
As a writer and photographer, Mattanah DeWitt's passion is telling stories that connect people and empower them to live on purpose. She is currently earning her B.A. in journalism at Union University, where she serves as Editor-in-Chief for the school's magazine and online newspaper, Cardinal & Cream.