A.L. Brown High School launches first dance program
By Sarah Campbell
KANNAPOLIS - Dancing is new to A.L. Brown High School student Talethia Alexander, but she feels more confident than ever when she sets foot in the studio.
"I've never danced a day in my life, but it makes me feel good," she said. "It's just so much fun."
Teacher Ashlyn Sumner said that's the way she wants her students to feel.
"Most of my students haven't had dance. That's what makes teaching here so fun," she said.
Sumner, who has been teaching private dance lessons at studios like the Piedmont School of Music & Dance for years, returned to the public school setting this fall to launch A.L. Brown's first dance program.
She started the Cabarrus County school system's first dance program in 1988, but left in 1995 after the birth of her second child.
"I was excited to get back into the school system," she said of the opportunity to work at A.L. Brown.
For the past three years, Sumner has been a teaching artist for North Carolina Arts in Action, an affiliate of the National Dance Institute based in New York. Through that program, she traveled to at-risk schools in the Chapel Hill area to teach dance.
"It's really for students who aren't dancers to motivate them to do the best at whatever they do through movement," she said.
Sumner said as a teaching artist, she learned a variety of ways to get through to students to make movement and dance fun rather than intimidating.
"I'm glad I had that training, it makes me approach teaching dance differently," she said.
Student Zaria Franklin said Sumner has helped her ease into dancing.
"She makes it very comfortable because she doesn't just tell us what to do, she does it with us," she said.
Sumner said she wants to give students a chance to reach their full potential by encouraging them.
"It's a place where students can excel where they might not excel academically," she said. "For some of them, dance could become their reason to come to school every day."
Sumner said she's glad to see A.L. Brown taking initiative to beef up its arts offerings.
"You learn so much about yourself through arts," she said. "You learn about discipline and pushing yourself to kind of think outside the box."
A lot of creative problem solving goes in to Sumner's class. One of the first challenges students faced this year was choreographing a dance using their bodies to make two symmetric and two asymmetric shapes along with two locomotor movements, such as running, leaping or hopping.
"It really challenged them to be critical thinkers through movement," she said "They've come a long way from being a little bit hesitant at first to now being really into it and enjoying it."
Sumner, who has also danced professionally for North Carolina Dance Theatre and Louisville Ballet, said the dance program has three beginner classes this semester and during the spring. She hopes to offer one beginning and two intermediate classes next fall.
"Intermediate classes are for students who are a little more interested and dedicated to dance," she said. "They'll get to do more technical and intricate choreography."
Franklin said as a cheerleader she's used to hip-hop style dancing, but Sumner's class has opened up a whole new world of dance for her.
"She made me realize I like contemporary, modern dance," she said.
Although student Tessa Green has been dancing for as long as she can remember, she's enjoyed the change of pace that Sumner's class offers.
"It's nice taking the modern class at school, because for me it's always been strictly ballet," she said.
Sumner said modern dance is about "letting go of the strict positions of ballet."
"It really is movement and finding a more natural way to move your body," she said.
Azania Merl said Sumner might be the coolest teacher she's ever met.
"I like that she points out things we're doing right," she said. "She tells us to have fun and put ourselves out there in our dances."
Dance veteran Nikia Nelson said she's glad to have a class where she can leave the desk behind and express herself.
"It's great to be taking a class and getting credit for something I'm good at," she said. "This is a class anyone can do well in, because everybody can move if they try."
Destiney Hall, who is in Sumner's fourth-block class, said dance is a fun way to end the day.The dance program is housed in the Samuel B. Stroup Arts Building, which was renovated in conjunction with the addition of the school's STEM Academy.
The total price tag for both projects comes in at $8.1 million, funded through Cabarrus County government.
The room features hardwood flooring and a wall lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors.
"I've taught in 13 different public schools, and it's the nicest dance studio I've ever had," Sumner said. "In Chapel Hill, I taught on a stage behind a curtain while PE was going on in the other half of the auditorium."
Sumner said the atmosphere makes a difference in how dancers feel about their work.
"It helps the integrity of the program," she said. "Students take it more seriously because we are in this beautiful space."
Sumner's classes have already performed a flash mob during a recent home football game and plan to dance to the "American Bandstand" theme song during the homecoming game.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.