By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Gail Harts steps into the dance theatre at Attucks Theatre and feels like a specialist nurturing rare seeds.
Harts started dance classes for inner city children ages 2 and up on Jan. 7 at Attucks Theatre. On hand were several of her former students who have finished college, returned to Hampton Roads, and offered a helping hand. Other students are pursuing professional careers. Tiffany Howard, for example, is performing in Memphis. Dominque Pierce is busy working on The Height. Rashidra Scott is studying at the Boston Conservatory, while Ericka Covington is performing in Sister Act.
“I’ve been around for a long time,” said Harts. She opened Gail Harts School of Dance in Portsmouth in 1979. “I have been able to touch many lives,” said Harts, who started out with 11 students, after dancing in several off-Broadway plays in New York. There, she met and married Portsmouth native Preston Harts, who is a public school administrator in Portsmouth.
“I’ve learned inner city children have a greater passion for dance but often do not have the money to pay for dance classes,” Harts said. If she had not grown up in New Orleans with dance teachers who boosted her confidence to the point that she won the 1969 Miss Black America Pageant she probably would not walk into the Attucks Theatre and flip on the lights in the dance studio each Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and start dance lessons that cost only $35 a month.
“My dance teachers taught me I could do many things,” she said. “I had intestinal asthma as a child. I couldn’t do many of the things my sisters could do. But all of my dance teachers had different and unique styles. They were my mentors. And my confidence went out of the ball park as they paid attention to the total person. “That’s what I do with all of my students,” Harts continued. “I try to pay attention to how a student is doing in school, at home, and elsewhere. This is something my teachers taught me. It’s a lesson I try to emulate.”
Harts has already planned a spring performance for her new students at Attucks. It is called a Little Bit of Heaven. The spring performance will be held on April 27-29 at the Attucks Theatre. Harts said dancers will perform gospel and liturgical routines.
“I would love to have sponsors support tuition payments for a child,” Harts said. “The talent is there. I see it. There is a lot of ability. In my dance classes they are learning so many things including timing, muscle and body movement, math, foreign language, and kinesiology.
Harts also teaches inner city youngsters to dance in free class at five Norfolk Public schools. “I will teach the children that come and sign up for the classes. So far, Harts has signed up 22 youngsters at five inner city schools in Norfolk. She is still accepting students.
When Harts picks up a newspaper or sees a student’s face in a celebrated performance, she understands their wide smile, graceful posture, and straight shoulders. She was only 10 when she performed for the first time in 1957 in New Orleans. Since then, she has touched lives at many studios including the Old Donation Center where she taught dance.
Although an injury sidelined her teaching career in 2005, she did what all dancers do after a fall. She got up and took off. She keeps an eye on her college bound program when she is not teaching youngsters at the Attucks or in NPS classes. “I have helped students to enroll on many campuses including Old Dominion, James Madison, VCU, and NYU.
“We are doing wonderful things at the Attucks Theatre,” she said.
To learn more, please phone 410-8517 or go to gailsdanceplace.com.