Last December, Shawnee Parks and Recreation announced a plan to start an affordable dance program for the community and without hesitation Jim Thorpe Academy math educator and long time dancer, Whitney Gonzales volunteered to run the program and teach dance.
According to Gonzales, she has been dancing since she was three and teaching the art since she was 14 and after losing her own studio in 2013 to a tornado, she knew she wanted dance in her life again.
"We have three wonderful dance studios here in town...but Shawnee has such a high poverty rate that I wanted dance to be available to those students that couldn't afford those fantastic studios," Gonzales said.
The dance teacher said after discussing the fee and determining the best price, she decided to charge dancers $20 a month for the program and it would include costumes, dance shoes and other needed supplies.
The first 22 students to enroll in the program started at two camps Gonzales said she held in the summer and a few students received scholarships.
For this upcoming semester, Gonzales said she is already awarding two scholarships to two 3-year-old dancers and the first class for the Spring will be Friday, January 31 from 4 to 6 p.m.
"It's just to help out community members that want their kids to be able to dance," Gonzales said. "It's an expensive hobby."
In addition to teaching dance again, Gonzales said one of the best aspect of working with the program is that her daughter Victoria is helping her.
"I've never seen a child so good at helping others. She always gets them on their little circle and sitting down and stretching and so I let her help me and she was fantastic," Gonzales said.
The math educator explained the dance program is for ages 3 to 12 and she teaches ballet, tap and jazz, but hopes to add more styles and adult classes as the program develops.
"This next semester we're going to break the oldest class down and we're going to have a 3-5 class, a 6-8 year old class and then a 9-12 class," Gonzales said. "We are also adding clogging this semester and next Fall we'll have cheerleading."
Gonzales explained classes for February, March April and May will be held in the Shawnee Municipal Auditorium at the Shawnee Senior Center every Friday from 4 to 6 p.m with each class being 30 minutes long.
On Monday, Dec. 16 the first 22 dancers in the program had their very first performance and the mother of two said she's excited to see what the next semester brings.
"I can't complain at all. I leave there with a smile. My passion has always been dance and seeing those kids shine is just what makes it all worth it," Gonzales said.
All of her life, Gonzales said she's been dancing and has had many wonderful opportunities including dancing in Paris her senior year, dancing on Broadway in New York City and receiving a minor in dance from East Central University.
"Dance has always just been apart of my life and I've worked with all of the studios in the area and they've been so supportive," Gonzales said. "We're a lucky community."
According to Gonzales, the program teaches the basics of ballet, tap and jazz and it's recreational, but she said dance is a wonderful activity for both boys and girls.
"Dance is great exercise. They get to be creative and all the research shows doing things across your body...increases brain function," Gonzales said. "They're using so much brain power...They learn team work, social skills and confidence."
Gonzales is doing everything on her own time and she said she wouldn't have it any other way because she's able to do what she loves most.
"Getting to dance again and sharing it with kids it's what I wanted to. It's why I volunteered," Gonzales said.
The long time dancer said as each semester passes she will choreograph themed dances for the students to perform at the end of each season and she said Spring's theme is the 90s.
"This next semester I hope more kids join and I'm hoping that next year we'll put on Shawnee's first Nutcracker," Gonzales said. "I'm really hoping we end up that way next Christmas."
Gonzales said enrollment for current students in the program started Monday, Dec. 16 and open enrollment for new students begins January 1, 2020.
To enroll visit dancestudio-pro.com/online/shawnee.