Saving the Last Dance
It’s the beginning of the spring semester, and the freshmen in Annie Lindsay’s dance class are nervous. Lindsay, who is 76 years old and stands 5 feet 3 inches, takes short, quick steps toward the center of the room. “Get up off that floor now,” she says in her country drawl as students leap across the creaky wood. To others, it’s, “Don’t hunch your shoulders,” or, “Take your sunglasses off your head.”
Some heed her grandmotherly instructions. Others continue to bumble about with strained faces. She tells the class she’s not looking for perfection—yet. “Right now I want to see effort.”
“It’s hard,” Lindsay says out of the corner of her mouth, “having a class full of freshmen.”
Lindsay has been teaching at Ramsay High School in Birmingham, Alabama, since 1970. She could have retired long ago, but every day she drives 30 miles to school—leaving behind a husband who is ill—because she’s afraid her departure will mean the end of the dance program.
She has good reason for concern, says Larry Contri, the district’s information technology officer and a former Ramsay principal. Birmingham’s decades-long enrollment slide means the school system loses millions in state funding each year. District officials plan to reduce staff and close schools in the fall, and when that happens, core academics—not fine arts—will have to take precedence.
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Ramsay, an academic magnet where students are admitted based on grades and test scores, is a bright spot: About 600 applicants annually vie for 150 freshman slots.
Principal Jeanette Watters says that as long as the school board approves a replacement for Lindsay, the program will continue. “I’m not going to close it,” she says. “This is Ms. Lindsay’s life.”
Lindsay hopes that by 2008 one of her former students will return to take over for her. “I’m planning,” she says, “but I don’t know.”
Hers is the only high school dance program in the 30,000-student system. Though she has had little formal training, her jazz, modern, and ballet classes often are the first to fill, and recitals draw big crowds. Students choreograph their own routines to music ranging from Handel’s “Messiah” to Janet Jackson’s “Lonely,” and former students have gone on to dance on Broadway and with the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
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Maintaining the dance program has become a personal mission for Lindsay. She reminds her students that they’re fortunate; things were different in pre-civil rights-era Birmingham. “Black kids didn’t have anything such as dance,” she remembers. During her childhood, black children weren’t offered transportation to school—let alone dance lessons. “I had to walk three long country miles to school,” Lindsay recalls. “I’d see buses full of white kids pass.”
As a girl, she’d watch the high-kicking June Taylor Dancers on television. When she tried to do the jitterbug, her mother and cousins mocked her. “They’d call me ‘country fool,’” Lindsay says. “That embarrassed me. So I guess I was determined to dance.” She took her first formal lesson at age 36.
When Lindsay arrived at Ramsay High, it was overwhelmingly white; now the student body is 99 percent African American.
For many of Lindsay’s students, high school is the only place where they can study dance. “If we don’t give our children the exposure to the arts,” Contri says, “many of our kids will never get it.”
Vol. 18, Issue 05, Pages 29-30, 33Published in Print: March 1, 2007, as Saving the Last Dance