Tuscola senior Kentley Nelson was recently selected to join the dance team at Division I East Tennessee State. Forty-plus dancers tried out, and Nelson was one of just four who made the final cut.
In the wake of such an achievement, The Mountaineer interviewed Nelson to gauge her thoughts on the matter. Below are her answers, which have been lightly edited for style and brevity.
The Mountaineer: Can you talk a bit about your tryout for East Tennessee State?
Kentley Nelson:After 16 years experience of dancing, singing, cheering and performing in front of crowds, I typically don't get nervous anymore. It’s kind of like breathing...it just comes natural.
However, on April 14, I attended my first college dance audition at East Tennessee State University. As I approached the gymnasium, I was super excited, but I recall being really nervous for the first time in a long time. As a matter of fact, I was so anxious that I almost felt nauseous.
I called my mom to tell her how I was feeling, that I had already counted over 30 girls in attendance with more were signing in. She could tell I was nervous, but told me not to worry about everyone else and to focus on myself. She recommended that I say a prayer and leave it in God’s hands. She reassured me that dancing is what I love, and that this was what I'd trained my entire life.
She told me to do my best, be confident and to not stop smiling, even if I messed up. She said,”Give them a reason to remember your name! You’ve got this and I love you!" That reassurance from my biggest fan was all I needed to hear. I hung up and continued on with a prayer while I began to stretch.
The tryout was intense and lasted about five hours. The audition consisted of technique skills, across the floor leaps and turns, a hip-hop combination, jazz combination, pom-pom combination and a possible interview. I was given about 15 minutes per combo to learn the choreography, perfect it on the spot and then perform the routines in front of the judges. They selected a handful of girls who they think did their best and called them back in to perform the routines over and over again until they choose their team. Fortunately, I was one of those girls called back each time.
As I left the tryout, I felt confident that I'd given 110 percent, and if I didn’t make it, that I just wasn’t what they were looking for at this time. This year, there were only four graduating seniors, and 40 or more girls competing for these spots. They kept 18 girls on the squad and I was very fortunate to be one of thehosen ones.
TM: Were you considering any other schools?
KN: It's always been a dream of mine to join a college dance team. Other universities that I toured and had a strong interest in attending were the University of Tennessee, UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Furman.
Being one of four very active and involved children, my parents lives are very hectic trying not to miss anyone’s games and performances. I knew I wanted to go far enough away to spread my wings and meet new people, but not so far that my family wouldn’t be able to make it to the games to watch me perform.
Once I auditioned and made the dance team at ETSU, that automatically sealed the deal. I looked no further. I knew in my heart this is where I belonged. I'd also be close enough to come home to visit my family, twin brother and also enjoy watching my younger two siblings cheer, dance and play sports at high school and middle school on my days off.
TM: What is your personal history of dance?
KN: I began dancing at the wee age of 2, at my home studio, Angie’s Dance Academy. My first teachers were Miss Angie, Miss Amanda and Miss Liz. By the age of 7, I was competing on Angie’s Aces, where my love for dance grew stronger by the day and friendships became many, both near and far.
I have experienced learning many genres of dance including ballet, jazz, lyrical, contemporary, hip-hip, modern, liturgical, musical theater, ballroom, gymnastics and acro, but my favorite is tap. I began special choreography with Miss Angie doing a tap solo and partnering with Landon Henley for my first jazz duet.
Furthermore, Miss Hayley choreographed several first place overall duets, and trios with my baby sister, Kavender Grace Nelson, and my best friend, Ansley Goolsby. We always enjoyed traveling with our mothers, Melanie Goolsby and Camden Nelson, to regional and national dance competitions each year where we won multiple first place titles.
We later branched out and expanded to Atlanta and Charlotte to acquire additional award-winning private choreography from outside choreographers Cara Mills, Harrison Culbreth and Brittany Willett.
In addition to weekly dance classes at my studio I took private tumbling classes from Kevin Hale and Kermit Belton. I've participated as a teaching assistant, as well as teaching private lessons. Additionally, I had the privilege of attending other local and neighboring dance studios who welcomed me with open arms into their studio to take classes and receive extra instructional dance guidance.
Also, through the years, I've had the opportunity of attending numerous intensives, workshops and conventions each year, where I learned choreography from famous choreographers such as Travis Wall, Abby Lee Miller, Stitch, Mandy Moore, Nick Bass and Mia Michaels, just to name a few. In addition to Miss Angie, Miss Hayley, Miss Brittany and all my additional dance teachers from Angie’s (both present and past) and all the other instructors who have positively impacted my life through instruction and love of dance. I am thankful to each and every one of them for not only teaching me to dance, but contributing to my sincere love and knowledge of dance.
TM: What is your favorite aspect of dance?
KN: One of the greatest things I've found to be true about dance is that it has so much to offer. It's important and meaningful in so many ways. Young or old, happy or sad, deaf or blind, those with physical limitations or those with physical superpowers, overweight or thin,dance doesn't discriminate. You aren’t even required to speak the same language or have a partner. Anyone and everyone can enjoy dancing.
Also, dancing has been statistically proven to be beneficial to one’s health, both physically and mentally. Some improvements include condition of heart and lungs, weight management, improved mental functioning, better social skills and greater self-confidence and self-esteem. I've made it my priority to share dance with others.
Acknowledging that several schools nationwide, as well as my own, do not offer dance or other fine arts as part of their curriculum is such a disadvantage and disappointment. I would like to be an advocate and help educate and spread awareness to others about all the meaningful benefits and importance of offering dance in public schools. The world of dance offers endless opportunities.
I choose to dance because dance chose me first. It captured my heart and has never stopped. Dance is my life story. Dance is my Who? What? When? Where? And Why? Dance is who I am and whom I choose to share it with. Dance is what I enjoy and love to do.When I dance, I'm free to express myself through the music I choose. I love dancing anywhere and everywhere.
And why do I dance? There is a million reasons why I choose to dance, but most importantly, I choose to dance because I love it. I can share it with anyone and everyone. Dance brings so much enjoyment and happiness to my heart. It’s who I am, what I love, and what I do.
Dance simply completes me.It is my happy place!
TM: When will you report to East Tennessee State?
KN: I report to ETSU July 22-28 for summer camp and team practice. Then we will report and move-in in mid-August with all other athletes. We will have practice every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights under the direction of Coach Van VanEaton.
Football game days are on Saturdays and basketball games are to be determined. ETSU emphasizes education as a first priority, so they also require us to have mandatory study sessions and tutoring along with additional workouts three times a week. We will have Christmas break and resume back from holidays on December 28 for games and competition rehearsals to prepare us for UDA D-1 Dance Competition in Orlando,Florida, the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr., day weekend. I will then return to continue dancing for the remainder of basketball season and throughout the SOCON tournament.
TM: Do you have a major in mind?
KN: My intended major is a bachelor of science in Business Education. My major will be business with a focus on marketing and communications . I will minor in education and dance.
In addition, I plan to pursue my masters in business. This opens up several different opportunities of which I am not yet certain to which path I will choose, but my baby sister, Kavender Grace, and I are definitely excited and hopeful to share our love of dance and performing with plans in the near future to open a dance and performing arts studio together where we will offer a variety of dance, cheer, musical theater, singing, gymnastics and acro.
TM: How has Tuscola prepared you college?
KN: My time at Tuscola has prepared me for college in many ways.
I'm taking honors and advanced placement classes as well as being captain of the varsity cheer squad, choreographer, spirit club president, Unified cheer, Special Olympics, HOSA, Leo Club, Honors Chorus (Summit), FCA, yearbook editor, teaching private dance and cheer lessons, community involvement and performances, weekly ballgames, competitive cheer and dance in addition to juggling two part time jobs and babysitting on the side.
It's taught me responsibility, leadership skills, time management skills, confidence, work ethic and to have respect for others as well as myself. It's also taught me to believe in myself and that hard work pays off!
TM: What will you miss most about Tuscola?
KN: Although I'm excited and looking forward to this new journey in my life called college, I can honestly say I will miss my days at Tuscola.
Teachers, principals,counselors, administrators, superintendents, coaches, custodians,Gary Justice, and all of my classmates and dear friends I'm forever grateful for all of you and I will miss each and everyone of you. Thank you for four wonderful years of memories at Tuscola.
However, I must admit I will miss cheering most of all. Not just standing under the Friday night lights or sitting for hours cheering from the hard bleachers, but cheering for my favorite Mountaineer teams. All of them. I'll miss cheering and dancing with my baby sister and cheering for my twin brother, Kizer. I love you both and wish you the best.
I'll miss the friendships, the fans, the local businesses who have generously supported me and Tuscola athletics for the past four years, my parents, tumbling across the gym floor, the fight song, the band, the student section, making posters and decorating the locker room, spirit week, dancing and stunting during halftime routines, pep rallies, throwing T-shirts to the fans, bus rides, preparing for competition, the Fabulous Five and two NCHSAA State Championships, Waffle House. The list could go on forever, but these are the days I’ll remember and I'll miss it all!
But Coach Bates, you have been an amazing teacher, coach and role model to me for four consecutive years. I'm grateful for you and love you dearly from the bottom of my heart.
TM: Anything else you'd like to say?
KN: Some people walk through life. I choose to dance.