Heather Leonard Retiring After Teaching Dance 14 Years In North Escambia

April 24, 2008

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When the music fades after a dance recital in Flomaton Friday night, Heather Leonard will take off her slippers for the very last time as a dance teacher. She’ll head off for the traditional post-recital pizza with the girls, knowing that she’s not only taught dance, but has taught grace and self-respect to hundreds of girls across North Escambia.

After 14 years teaching dance in North Escambia, Heather Leonard is retiring, and she is closing her Heather Leonard’s Danceworks. She will end her career with her students’ final recital at Flomaton High School.

She has taught not just dance to girls from Jay to Century to McDavid to Byrneville to Walnut Hill. She has taught them self-respect, self-worth and a little bit about her Lord.

She began teaching dance as her business 14 years ago after moving to Byrneville. Her first classes were taught at the Byrneville Community Center, a location she would continue to use until just after Hurricane Ivan.

“When I came here it was the biggest blessing that no one had ever really danced,” she said. “I came in and had a fresh slate. Fresh kids with no experience. They got to be mine.”

She was happy that she got to teach the girls of North Escambia that they could respect themselves and still dance.

“I am a Christian, and my values do not line up with a lot of the dance community. I’ve tried to teach the girls that they are how God made them. They are precious, innocent. They are not trashy.”

“I look at the way the dance community is as a whole…cut throat, self-centered, eating disorders to be too thin, smoking, drugs. I can’t stand those things.” Those are the things that Heather crusaded against during her 14 years.

“Once I was saved, I looked to God who showed me that those things were not what He liked,” she said. “He brought me out of the darkness into His light. I became very focused on ballet and finding a way to teach the girls to love themselves the way He made them. I’ve always been very careful to lead them in the right way.”

“We love Miss Heather,” Chelsea Sims, a senior at Northview High School said. She is 17, and she has danced 14 of those years with Heather. “She’s so much more than a teacher. She’s our friend.”

heather11.jpg“She helps us with our lives,” Sarah Killam, a freshman at Northview said. She is 15, and she has danced with Heather for 10 of those years. “She’s like a mom to us. Sometimes we will stay after class and talk to her about what is going on in our lives.” The photo to the left shows Sarah with Heather at one of Sarah’s first recitals.
“And she’s always worked to help us be better Christians,” Chelsea said.

“We can have Sunday School sometimes after dance,” Darbi Langhorne said. She’s now in nursing school at Pensacola Junior College. She has danced with Heather for 14 years.

The theme song for Friday night’s recital will be “Sharecropper’s Seed” by Christian artist Nicole C. Mullen. “So I’m praising the Lord of the harvest…God still cares for the least of these,” the song says.

“The Lord cares about everyone. He cares about you, about me. One of my relatives was having a hard time, addicted to drugs. It could have been me. It’s impresses me so much how much God cares,” Heather said. “This dance is dedicated to him.”

Every performance for Heather Leonard’s Danceworks always starts the same. “Before every performance we circle up and pray,” she said. “It has always been that way.”

For the past few years, her dance studio has been in the back of the Country Bumpkin building in Century. It’s nice studio…a mirrored wall, a proper wood dance floor and metal ballet bars.

“That’s not how we started,” Darbi said. “We started with a mirror on a wood frame we rolled out at the community center. The (ballet) bars were PVC pipe and duct tape. But we just danced anyway.”

Hurricane Ivan proved to be a test for Heather and her students. It heavily damaged the Byrneville Community Center where her classes were held. There was no ceiling, no heat and water puddled on the floor when it rained.

“But we were determined,” she said, “that Ivan was not going to beat us. It was a lesson in perseverance. We felt like we had to continue to show that we had not been beat by Ivan.”

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Heather and the three girls gathered around on the floor looking through a box of pictures (pictured above). They would laugh as they looked at 14 years of memories. Sometimes Heather would pause, a fond memory on her mind.

“It’s been a great time,” she said.

“I love it a lot. I’ve been dancing since I was three years old. There has never been a year since then that I did not dance.”

So why is she retiring from dance?

“The Lord put it on my heart to set dance aside,” Heather said. “He wanted to make sure I love Him more than I do dancing. He changed my life. He made me; He saved me. He wants me to show others how much He cares.”

She expressed her thanks to the North Escambia community for supporting her during her 14 years. And she expressed special gratitude to her husband Stephen.

“My husband has been so supportive over the years,” she said. “He was the brains behind the business. He helped me go into business without doing into debt, and to be a good steward. I appreciate him so much.”

The final Heather Leonard’s Danceworks recital will be at Flomaton High School this Friday night at 7:00. Admission is free.

For more photos from Heather Leonard’s Danceworks, click here.

Pictured top of page (L-R): Heather Leonard, Darbi Langhorne, Sarah Killam and Chelsea Sims practice their “Sharecropper’s Dream” dance. NorthEscambia.com exclusive photos, click to enlarge.

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