Manatee's annual dance showcase Saturday at Neel Performing Arts Center

vmannix@bradenton.comMarch 14, 2014 

MANATEE

It had been a long day already for Bunni Roberts, but she was still going full tilt boogie.

Her Braden River Middle School Panther Dancers will vouch for it.

Taking cues from a hip-hop instructional video up on the multi-purpose room wall, the 44-year-old dance team director put her adolescent proteges through their paces, gyrating through all the steps.

"SIDE! SIDE! FRONT! UP! FRONT! DOWN! BOOM! BOOM!" she called out. "Do it again! Ready, 5-6-7-8 ..." It was past 5 p.m., more than 11 hours after Roberts had gotten to her first-grade classroom at Tara Elementary School, but she was energized.

The mother of two was in her element.

"There's a little hip-hop person in my blood," Roberts said, laughing. "But my body's a little bit older now and it's getting harder."

She could've fooled her dancers.

"She gets us going," sixth-grader Peyton Welter said.

The heightened tempo of the 90-minute practice coincided with the 17-member team's preparation for Saturday's "Yes We Can DANCE!" It's the sixth annual showcase for Manatee County's scholastic dance teams at the Samuel R. Neel Performing Arts Center at State College of Florida, 5840 26th St. W.

"They want to look good," Roberts said. "It's an important two minutes in their lives."

Like her colleagues around the community, she is invested in the event. It's the brainchild of Helen Dolbec, Bayshore High School's former dance director, and Linda Boone, the former Manatee High School Sugar 'Cane director.

"There is so much dance talent in our schools and everyone has special things that distinguish each team," said the 1987 Manatee High grad and former Sugar 'Cane captain. "It's good for the girls to see all the variety out there, see what they could be in high school."

Roberts could be referring to herself.

Dance and performing is in her bloodlines.

Her mom, Diane Bradbury, captained Southeast High School's first drill team.

Her daughters, Brianne and Hayleigh, were Braden River High School Black Pearls.

"I've been on all Mom's dance teams," Hayleigh said. "She had two different roles and handled them both well. She showed me no favoritism, treated me like everyone else and I liked it."

Her mom danced at church.

She dances with her girls.

She dances at home alone.

"It's a passion of mine," Bunni Roberts said. "Ever since I was a little girl I started making up dances and now I'm passing that along to them. It's fun, it's exercise, it teaches them teamwork. I tell them if they mess up, look at the girl next to you, keep going, keep smiling and it teaches them never to quit."

Her dancers swear by it.

Co-captain Ashley Danko has danced for Roberts since she was a third-grader at Tara.

"I like how she helps us," the eighth-grader said. "If we don't understand it, she stops everything and goes through it slowly."

It works for co-captain Courtney Bradley, too.

"I've grown attached to how she teaches," the eighth-grader said. "She's really good with girls."

That goes beyond dance, too.

Roberts understands how awkward adolescence is for middle school-aged girls.

"She's like a second mom," said seventh-grader Harley Kovalick.

Of course.

"They're like my girls out there," Roberts said. "I want them to succeed. I want them to feel the accomplishment and carry that with them. It's good for their self-esteem. To see them at the beginning and to see their growth at the end of the year is monumental. By the end of the year it's almost like they're a different team."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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