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.
While dance teachers across the board often find themselves educating parents about the importance of dance and the arts in their children’s lives, Djana Bell and her staff at Norma’s Academy of Dance in Fairburn, Georgia, have to go one step further. They must teach parents that a dance career is even possible for students of color. “It has started to get better with role models like Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince and Alison Stroming, who are showing little black girls that they can do this,” says Bell. “It’s our challenge to help them understand it can happen to them, as well. But that mind-set also has to start with the parents.”
Bell has been tackling this challenge for the past three decades. While a sophomore dance major at Florida State University, she learned her mother, the original owner of Norma’s, had suffered a fatal heart attack. “I was forced to come home, to decide if I wanted to maintain her business or continue college,” she says. “Well, 32 years later, I’m still here.”
It wasn’t an easy choice. “My mom started the studio in 1972, and it was the first African-American-owned studio in Atlanta. She passed away in May 1985—recital season. Costumes had been ordered; the venue was rented. Parents had spent money. After talking things over with my grandmother—who was the studio’s office manager and ballet class pianist—I said, ‘This is my mom’s legacy, what she was passionate about.’ And I just kept going. I did a lot of soul searching after the concert, but I never turned back.”
In Bell’s hands, Norma’s has changed significantly. “My mom operated more of a conservatory for dance, theater, music,” Bell says. “I streamlined it to just dance.” Today, 125 students are enrolled full-time, and Bell and her six faculty members teach ballet, jazz, modern, hip hop and tap. A small advanced ensemble performs in the community. Alumni have performed with such companies as Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Philadanco, and Bell’s students frequently attend summer programs, including Dance Theatre of Harlem Summer Intensive and The Ailey School.
“We don’t compete, though we do attend one convention a year—Tremaine—for the workshops,” says Bell. “My studio isn’t for everyone, I’ll admit it.” She calls herself a “stickler for old-school dance etiquette,” and she’s eager for her dancers to pursue dance outside of the confines of her studio. “I want them to have an understanding of the bigger picture,” she says.
Sometimes that means bringing the bigger picture directly to her students. In 2016, Bell invited DePrince to lead a master class at Norma’s—and DePrince, who was visiting her parents in the area, agreed. “I made all my students buy her book and read it beforehand, and she signed them after class,” Bell says. “Afterward, Michaela remarked how professional my students were—they were dressed, prepared and ready to dance. It was such a great experience for them.”