Dance teacher Lisa King sits cross-legged on the floor in the dance studio at Woodrow Wilson High School, looking at the past and the future all at once.
“When I first came to Woodrow, I didn’t have anything,” she says, remembering the years when her students danced in a gym, an old auto mechanic shop, portables, and sometimes the school cafeteria, “which does not have the cleanest floor,” she points out.
“Who would have wanted to come to the Woodrow dance program back then?” she asks. “The dance program you see now was literally built on blood, sweat, tears and ketchup packets.”
Today, thanks to a $14 million school expansion package in 2013, she has a dance studio with sleek grey floors, a wall of mirrors and giant windows that flood the room with natural lighting. But more than that, she heads up a competitive dance company, one of the largest in Dallas ISD, which recently has begun attracting more seasoned dancers.
“The company is going to change this year,” she says, in a bittersweet tone that’s mixed with both excitement and nostalgia. “This is the first year that I’m seeing kids coming in who have been studio-trained for years.”
It’s a company she single-handedly built, says Woodrow principal Kyle Richardson.
“That’s totally her,” he says. “She built this program. She’s responsible for both the dance program and for revitalizing the drill team, which is at 100 members now. She’s just doing a ton.”
When she moved to Woodrow from Alex W. Spence Middle School in 2009, the Woodrow dance program was nonexistent. Lucky for Woodrow, building dance programs from the ground up is kind of King’s thing.
“There was no performing class. Nobody danced,” she says. “I’d tell kids, ‘I’m going to have rehearsal after school, and you’re all invited. Whoever comes, you’re in the piece no matter what.’ So that’s how I built it. I just gave everyone a shot.”
She carried that mindset through the years, and it worked for her.
“To study dance is very expensive, and most of my students were not given that opportunity,” she says. “So the kids that I got were raw. I could take those kids and mold them and expose them to this world of dance as therapy more than anything.”
In her mind everyone is a dancer because dance isn’t just about dance; it’s about movement, expression, hard work, experimentation, creativity and seeking a deeper understanding of oneself. In that same way, King is more than a dance teacher to her students. She’s also a coach, a mentor, an artist, a therapist and to many of them, a second mom.
“I always tell them, ‘I’m not here to prepare you for the stage. I’m here to prepare you for life,’” she says. It’s a sentiment she doesn’t take lightly.
Students aren’t allowed to dance unless they keep their grades up, which has been a driving motivation for more than a few of her students. She uses dance and drill team as a way to hold her students accountable and to teach them to work hard, she says.
“That work ethic is going to carry them throughout life,” she explains. “I tell all my classes, ‘It doesn’t matter if you ever dance again. That’s not what this class is about. It’s about learning to work really hard.’”
For Rogelio Martinez, who graduated in 2013, dance was the sole reason he stayed in school — both because of King and because of a love for dance.
“I saw her as a mom, because I never really had one,” Martinez told us back in 2013. “She took care of me and stuff. I danced everything, and I was a really fast learner. I put all my mind into it. People always see me as a quiet person, and when I would dance I would be different. I just love performing, just the way it feels. It’s like freedom.”
Her class is open to everyone, no matter their size, shape, experience or socioeconomic standing, and King treats every member of her dance company like family. It’s not uncommon for her to use dance as a way to counsel her students.
“Dance is a tell all,” she points. “From the way we sit, to the way we stand, to the way we move. It’s body language, so I notice instantly when there’s a change. So when a kid is starting to struggle, I’ll notice it in their movement. It shows up.
“Sometimes they’ll come in and they’ll just be on fire, dancing better than they’ve ever danced before,” she continues. “And then later I’ll find out that you know the kid’s grandmother is sick or something, and they’re using dance as a way to cope.”
She uses dance to challenge students to explore and breakdown internal boundaries. She chips away at stereotypes by having girls lift girls or girls lift boys, and she pushes each student to be vulnerable and to tap into their emotions. She spends weeks teaching her students about art and helping them use creativity to solve choreography problems, explaining that there is no right or wrong way; there is only perspective.
“You’ll see I use minimal costumes,” King points out. “My dances are not about the costumes at all. My dances are about pure, raw movement and expression. Coming together. Working together, and doing something that some of these kids have never done before. It’s a way to kind of go inside yourself and discover who you are as a person.”
And like all good teachers, she worries about each of her students.
“I’ve found myself on the last day of school, closing the door and just feeling like, ‘Oh gosh, I taught them everything I could. Did I really prepare them for what’s really out there?’” she says.
“Because I think every kid deserves an education, and every kids deserves to learn. So many kids think they’re not deserving, and they are. I tell them, ‘You deserve the best in life. Don’t settle.’”
For some students that means graduating high school with the best grades possible, and for others that means going to college or beyond.
College wasn’t even on the radar of King’s former student Mario Ramirez, who graduated in May, and is now a freshman on the dance team at the University of Texas in Austin.
Ramirez had very little dance experience when he started learning from King at Woodrow. He certainly wasn’t studio trained, but he had passion and talent, and that was enough for King.
“I was struggling to keep my grades up and I had no discipline. I have to thank Ms. King because she swept me up,” he explains. “She told me that if I didn’t pass my classes then I couldn’t dance. That was terrifying to me.”
He wanted to go to school at Texas Women’s University, where King received her degree, but she pushed him to apply to the dance team at UT in Austin. He didn’t believe he was good enough, but King insisted.
Now King tells her other students about Ramirez, using him as an example of what they can accomplish in a short amount of time if they set their minds to it.
“The other students look at him and go, ‘OK, maybe I can do it, too,’” King says. “He’s really raised the level of the department.”
This year the Woodrow dance program is changing because it has become a draw to Woodrow for trained dancers.
“So now I’m going to merge these two worlds into one — basically the world of the haves and the have-nots,” King says. “How do I get them to come together? Easy. Through dance. They’ll learn from each other. I’m apprehensive, but I’m so looking forward to diversifying the dance program even more.”
Watch Lisa King’s students perform in “Nutcracker: Short ’N’ Suite” on Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 8 and 9, at 7 p.m. in the Woodrow Wilson High School auditorium, 100 S. Glasgow. Tickets range from $6-$10 and can be purchased in advance at woodrowwildcats.org or at the door.
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