Southern Trailblazer
April 15, 2008


While globetrotting as a triple threat in touring musical theater productions, Kelly Burnette never dreamed her most fulfilling job would be as a middle  and high school dance teacher at a performing arts charter school in Palmetto, Florida—the very town her parents had moved to retire. Now, a decade after starting the dance program at Manatee School for the Arts with fellow dance teacher Cheryl Carty, Burnette is not only happy, she and the program are thriving. 


MSA, which turns 10 this year, is celebrating more than a birthday. “We’ve literally grown about tenfold from where we started,” says Burnette. What began as a school for sixth and seventh graders with a dance faculty of two has exploded into an institution serving 1,100 sixth through twelfth graders. Seven full-time dance teachers now provide instruction to the 500 to 600 students enrolled in dance classes and enjoy the use of six dance studios, a 400-seat theater and a black-box space.


“We were these two crazy dance gals trying to make dance in a bowling alley,” says Burnette, referring to the building’s previous incarnation. “When you see what we’ve got now, you’d probably never believe where we came from.” 


As the school’s student body grew each year, largely through word of mouth, the demand for more teachers increased, along with the need for more studio space. Fortunately, Burnette and Carty had a supporter in Dr. Bill Jones, MSA’s mastermind and principal, who hired teachers of diverse backgrounds as needed, added multiple floors to the school’s original structure and preserved the 80-minute dance class format. Having witnessed the improvements dance had made in his own children’s schoolwork, he was eager to support Burnette and Carty’s initiatives. “We are quite fortunate,” says Burnette. “Where most schools are struggling to keep any arts program, much less have dance, we are very strong.”


As the program has flourished, Burnette’s career has simultaneously skyrocketed. Last year, she was bestowed with an NDA 2007 K–12 Dance Educator of the Year honor, for which she has spent the last few months teaching across the country and working on various projects, including the development of a ballroom curriculum for middle and high school levels created by fellow MSA dance teacher Pam Callender. She also received a Surdna Fellowship in 2006, an award that only 20 high school arts teachers around the country win each year. Most recently, she became the president of the Association for Dance Education for the Florida Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Sport. And, as if her plate wasn’t full enough, she and her husband Bill had their first child, Alexis Rhe-Ana, last July. 


According to her colleagues, Burnette’s teaching approach is anything but cookie-cutter. “She’s shown me that it’s not always by the book,” says MSA dance teacher Kelly Hillman. “It’s about dealing individually with the kids and inspiring them, and using their energy to get them to be motivated and want to dance.” 


In fact, despite all of her new responsibilities, Burnette continues to stay involved in students’ lives, directing and choreographing shows at MSA and in the community, as well as applying for grants in order to bring in guest artists and organize field trips to professional shows. “Kelly never ceases to amaze me with her ability to sacrifice her time and energy for the well-being of others,” says Carty. “She is ready to give up her weekends so that she can sponsor students to dance at community events or for dance organizations . . . . She puts her trust and loyalty into a gigantic heart that works overtime.”


Woman of the World 


Keeping up a crazy schedule is, in some ways, second nature to Burnette. A self-described Army brat (her dad was a colonel), she moved with her family every few years growing up, attending 12 schools between kindergarten and college. “That lifestyle prepared me for my professional lifestyle better than anything else could have,” notes Burnette, who toured to 45 states and 13 countries as a professional dancer. 


Having to reinvent herself so often as a child made her not only a well-rounded person, but a versatile dancer as well. “As much as we moved, my mom knew enough about dance, having danced herself as a child, to look for the right places,” says Burnette, adding that because her mother valued the quality of instruction more than the type of dance being taught, she received an eclectic dance education. 


Burnette performed modern for the first time at age 17 during an audition for the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute. Despite her inexperience, she landed a full scholarship to the program. She went on to receive a BFA in modern dance performance from the University of Oklahoma, where she also took acting and voice lessons. “I was straddling two worlds, studying to be a concert dancer but very interested in musical theater,” she recalls. “Frankly, even though everybody thought I was a little nuts, I knew that was probably the prudent thing to do. There are more jobs in musical theater than in concert dance.” 


Trailblazing a path at school turned out to be a shrewd career move. After graduating, she moved to New York City for seven years, most of which were spent on national and international tours for musical theater shows (including a national tour of The Wizard of Oz starring Mickey Rooney), with occasional gigs dancing for various small modern companies. She loved traveling, but living out of suitcases eventually wore thin. That’s when she called Ko Yukihiro, director of the OU modern department and her mentor, for advice. He suggested coming back to OU for a graduate degree. When she did, she also took up a dual teaching post in both the modern and the new musical theater department.


From the Ground Up


Burnette sent her resumé to MSA after learning of the school’s opening from her parents. Jones and Carty were impressed, but even more so once they contacted her: The first time Burnette and Carty spoke, they realized that they complemented each other perfectly. “We shared similar teaching philosophies, training and background, and I felt that we could build something special together,” says Burnette. “We were totally yin and yang. I don’t think either one of us could have done it without the other.” Carty concurs, calling Burnette “more than the glove that fits my hand. She is the right hand to my left.” Jones hired her sight unseen.


In launching the dance program, Burnette contributed her academic experience, while Carty’s years as a private studio owner brought a business sensibility. (Jones’ three children were former students of Carty’s.) At the same time, both women share extensive experience performing, directing and choreographing professionally (Carty was a Rockette, toured with American Chamber Ballet and has been in more than 50 musicals), and both have acted as department chair over the years—Carty most recently due to Burnette’s packed schedule.


After 10 years, the program they founded now offers 20 dance classes every day, with each of the seven teachers leading a minimum of three classes a day and devoting a fourth period to planning. The enviably diverse range of genres they teach includes ballet, jazz, tap, modern, choreography, hip hop and both Latin and standard forms of ballroom. The ethnic dance program, started two years ago, has offered German folk dance, Chinese ribbon dance, hula and Afro-Cuban.


Perhaps one of the teachers’ largest endeavors is producing the two annual student performances. “We put on every hat possible,” Burnette explains. “We run the sound and the lights and everything. We’re onstage directing the kids.” In addition, MSA students are asked to perform in the community five to 10 times a year, at festivals, in retirement homes, for civic and arts organizations and in museums—meaning, at day’s end, Burnette can often be found in rehearsal. (They were recently asked by the director of a local art museum to improvise among Auguste Rodin sculptures at a special event.) Burnette organizes casts based on the type of floor the venue has, and which students are available. The school also sponsors the Dancerettes, which comprises advanced high school students and is run by Carty, as well as the Spats Cats, a ballroom performance group run by Callender.


Dance for All


While there are other performing arts high schools in Florida, most of them are magnet schools, which traditionally draw a specific type of student based on the focus of the school and require admission auditions. “Magnet schools have quite a bit of leeway to say no, and they may be turning away students who do not necessarily have a background in dance—either because of lack of opportunity or socioeconomic situations—but may have a desire and a hidden talent for it,” says Burnette. “I think that’s where we have an advantage. We offer an opportunity for kids who may never otherwise have the opportunity to excel in the arts for free and train with people who are highly qualified in the field.”


The middle school level is open to all Florida students, although MSA has some say in who attends at the high school level, and every prospective high school student goes through an interview process designed to familiarize the faculty with his or her work. The school is so popular that there’s typically a waiting list every year of 50 to 60 students. “A lot of folks in the early years were expecting it to be a traditional school, but it’s not,” says Burnette. “Our focus is not sports, so eventually, over time and attrition, those students who wanted sports were weaned out. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy in that way. We were eventually whittled down to the kids who had an interest and talent in the arts.”


Sixth graders are required to take a full year of dance, theater, visual and graphic arts, and music—all for a pass/fail grade—and perform once at the end of the year. After the sixth grade, students have four elective periods from which to choose any of a variety of options within these four disciplines. Of the dance offerings, ballroom is the most popular across all age categories. “As far as we know, we’re the only school in the country that has a full-time middle school ballroom curriculum,” says Burnette. “We’re fortunate and I think the kids know it. They’re starting to realize that they wouldn’t have this if they were at any other school.” 


Placement in elective classes is at teachers’ discretion and based on level of training, not grade. Students with a studio background are few and far between. “The vast majority of the kids have never studied dance before and don’t necessarily have an interest in it [initially],” says Burnette.  


Multiple Intelligences

Manatee may highlight the arts, but academics are highly valued. “A bunch of our dancers just had their science projects selected for the county fair,” says Burnette. MSA even has a National Dance Honors Society, an organization of which senior Dawna Kuiken is a member. “This school has the highest grades out of every school in the county,” says Kuiken. “Arts are in everything. If you take out art, you’re taking out the passion. In history, if you take out art, there’s nothing.” 


The school’s thrust is multiple intelligences, something Burnette takes very seriously. She’s been able to combine dance and academics by requiring an MLA research paper to be written in each dance class on the topic of the student’s choosing, as long as it connects to the overall theme of the class. (For instance, a paper about the history of tango could be written for a ballroom class.) Each paper must be presented orally and also have a visual component, such as a diorama, collage, dance or sculpture.


“It’s really fun and challenging, yet at the same time, it’s not hard at all,” says teacher Nicole Crew. “Once you get in the classroom and you have them doing history readings, studying vocabulary words and discussing theories about dance, in the end it becomes about life. You never know when you’re going to run into a really good discussion in class about something serious because of the study that they undertake.” 


Students’ grades also depend on attendance, as well as dressing appropriately, being on time and not chewing gum. “Then there is a somewhat subjective grade that I call the attitude/work ethic,” says Burnette. Each student is also required to pass both a skills test and a written test in each class. Because of Burnette’s status as an adjunct professor at Manatee Community College, she recently developed an advanced placement course for her students to enable those who qualify to receive college dance credits. 


Sharing Knowledge


“As I got older, I realized how lucky I am to have this legacy to pass on from my teachers and what a shame it would be if I didn’t pass it on to the next generation,” says Burnette, who adds that because she is still a working professional, she not only offers insight into the realities of the dance world but has the ability to hire her students for shows in the many high-caliber venues at which she choreographs and directs. (She’s a member of Actors’ Equity and an associate member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.) “My students realize that people call me, and if they need kids to dance, they’re going to work.” 


While teaching proper technique and a professional work ethic is paramount, Burnette knows that only a fraction of the students who pass through her doors will go pro. However, “we want those who don’t to have the appreciation and understanding to become a better audience member, maybe a philanthropist, maybe a reporter, maybe a dance historian,” she says. “We’re trying to open up a broader world for these kids and, to me, the best thing I can teach them is not necessarily how to do an arabesque but how to be a better person—how to have integrity, how to be responsible, how to be someone people trust.” 


Burnette describes the MSA staff as a small, self-contained company and the students as their pickup artists. “I think what we do is pretty incredible—and I don’t say that for myself, I say it for what the kids achieve and for what my teammates and colleagues achieve,” she explains, insisting the program would be nothing without her team. It’s clear, however, that she’s the driving force. “We learn from her all the time,” says Hillman. “She’s one of those people whose personality just rubs off on you. If you’re unsure of yourself, or just kind of stuck, not knowing what you’re going to do with your class, she’ll throw out an idea and you can run with it.” 


For Burnette, the reward is going home each night knowing she has accomplished something important. “We love the kids,” she says. “We love the opportunity that this has provided for them; we love that it broadens their horizons. It literally opens up a whole new world for them, and I don’t think that’s being melodramatic.”


Sara Jarrett is a writer based in New York City.

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