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Former Sugar ‘Cane directs Haile dance team’s return to Saturday showcase

EAST MANATEE

Angela Chaltis cranked up the stereo system, Katy Perry’s “Firework” lyrics filled the studio and Haile Dance got busy.

“You just gotta ignite the light

And let it shine

Just own the night

Like the Fourth of July”

Thirty-three Haile Middle School students limbered up to the driving rhythm with Chaltis at the forefront.

“5-6-7-8,” she said aloud, counting cadence for her proteges.

It was 10 days until “Yes, We Can Dance!” -- Manatee County’s dance team showcase -- and weeks of preparation were being fine-tuned for the big show Saturday at the State College of Florida’s Neel Performing Arts Center.

For Chaltis, who has built the third-year program from scratch, it’ll be a big moment for her as well as her team.

“My kids love to show off and any time my group goes on stage I’m proud to show them off to other people,” Chaltis said. “Some have performed in the showcase all three years and they look forward to it, they work for it. They get to see all the high school teams and what’s next for them.”

It wasn’t long ago the 26-year-old teacher was a Manatee High School Sugar ‘Cane, co-captain in a program with rich tradition and national recognition.

That upbringing, that passion for dance still drives her, teaching six dance classes daily.

“I’m living the dream,” Chaltis said. “I love my job. I love being able to give kids the same thing I got that made me successful. Not that everyone’s going to take it to the same extreme practicing 30 hours a week, but just the idea I can give middle-schoolers this opportunity is wonderful.

“I have studio-trained kids, who’ve been in dance since they were 3. I’ve also got kids who never stepped into a dance room before. In fact, I’ve got more who don’t have a dance background.”

Yet they keep coming to practice, they care about their craft and “can’t” is not in their vocabulary.

“I can honestly say the kids I have this year have the same level of drive and commitment to performances and any kind of dancing that I had in high school,” Chaltis said. “I’m very impressed with the maturity these kids have. I’m thankful for it was well. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised at what these kids can do.”

Kids like athlete Wanley Desir.

One of the squad’s few boys, the eighth-grader followed his sister’s footsteps on the squad for a good reason.

“It helps me with my balance and it’s fun,” said Desir, 14. “When you dance, it shows how you feel, how you move. This is a lot of work, too. Everyone has to be perfect, every move, every step.”

Then there’s Jazminn Lucas, an eighth-grader who rediscovered dance.

“I grew up in dance, but stopped and started here again. I love the class. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do,” the 14-year-old said. “It makes me happy, learning the choreography.”

Ditto for seventh-grader Kaylin Piccinini, a first-year team member.

“Learning new things about dance, it’s exciting,” the 12-year-old said.

She can’t wait for Saturday, either.

“I’m honored to be with such great dancers. It’s so cool to share that,” she said.

Chaltis put the squad through its paces, practicing a jazz number they’ll perform Saturday to White Stripes “Seven Nation Army.”

“I’ve never taught them to compare levels of ability, because everyone’s different,” she said. “All they’re doing is appreciating that they can show off what they can do, be able to represent Haile. There’s a lot of pride when you’re on stage, hear the school name and at the same time be able to see and experience other dance styles.”

Which is part of eighth-grader Lauren McFarland’s motivation.

She’s been with the program from the outset, but measures her growth in dance in more ways than one.

“I’ve definitely improved and the students here have gotten better each year, too,’ the 13-year-old said. “I’m looking forward to seeing other schools, what they’ve done, showing them what we’ve done and how far we’ve come from last time.

“I’ve learned to respect dance and its culture under Miss Chaltis.”

That’s dance music to her instructor’s ears.

“This is a dance-oriented community,” Chaltis said. “It’s so much a part of me and I’m proud to be part of it.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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