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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Brighton High dance teacher hangs up shoes — sort of

Jul 25, 2018 10:49AM ● By Julie Slama

Brighton High dance teacher Lisa West says farewell to an empty dance studio on one of her last full day of teaching. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected] 

When Brighton High School starts a new school year this fall, a familiar face will be missing in the school's dance program. Lisa West, a dance teacher and coach for the Bengals, stepped down in June after 40 years.

“I fully had intended to stay, but this is a chance to move forward. I’ve enjoyed every opportunity and have learned from these students to laugh at everything, no matter how dismal of a day it is.” 

West, who plans to continue teaching dance to seniors who are in assisted living for memory care, said she has seen improvement in them since she was introduced to the movement classes in January. 

“It’s a game changer when they start moving without a cane or walker,” she said. “It brings them joy and helps jog their memory.” 

Even West, who admits she can’t leap the way she used to when she was a dancer at the University of Utah, said she may miss the program she took over from Virgina McDonald, who was the first Brighton Dance Company coach. 

“I don’t know quite what I’ll do when there’s not a bell to tell me to eat lunch or I won’t be up at 4:45 every morning and back home around 6 p.m. every night,” she said, laughing. “I may just have to lead a more balanced life.” 

Still, she can recall plenty of stories during her teaching to remind her of her high school teaching tenure. 

“When I first started teaching, I was 21 years old and was teaching health to teenage boys at Hillcrest High,” she said. “One boy asked me to prom. I said, ‘very funny’ only to learn years later, when I taught his friend’s daughter, that he was serious.” 

West said hours choreographing school musicals and trips with the dance company always bring back fond memories. 

“I’ve had countless families and great support from them, especially when we’ve traveled to Chicago, Southern California, Philadelphia and San Antonio,” she said. “One of my favorite moments is when the students learn from professionals at the Disney workshops and also in Chicago, when we saw ‘Wicked’ before it came to Salt Lake City. I always try to bring something historic into the trips, so when we were in San Antonio, we saw the Alamo. When we were in San Francisco, I had them moving from one thing to another so when it was time to see the American Ballet Company perform, I looked over and saw them so exhausted, many of them fell asleep.”

West, who originally thought she would teach lessons at schools throughout the state, has been glad to stay at Brighton and see how the dance program has grown. 

“I’ve seen cuts in the dance program, but I’ve also seen its resurgence as it became more prominent in the community as well as gained more interest with dance shows like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” she said.

West said classes have changed as the traditional semester schedule moved to trimesters in the 1990s and with that, all of dance company’s performances were packed into six months from the traditional nine-month school calendar. 

“We don’t have spring for dance company, so our final concert is in February,” said West, who also taught health, ballroom dance and Dance I and II. “Dance has changed as most competitive sports have. Students have to make choices, prioritize everything. Dance company isn’t competitive, but we have hours of practice and it’s hard to fit in everything. The concerts are my favorite thing. I tell the students if it’s a really good show, then they’ve worked hard. If it’s not, then I didn’t prepare enough.”

However, West has always put education first, then dance. 

“A lot of the kids get straight A’s; however, a lot of kids just want to dance and if it wasn’t for dance company, they might not come. We’re here to nurture one another and help them achieve,” she said, adding that some of her students fondly have referred to her as a “second mom” in ensuring their homework comes first. 

Students also have changed, West said. When she enters the classroom, it’s silent — she seldom sees students gabbing. 

“It’s quiet as students are now on their phones. They have more resources than anyone in the world, but they still need teachers to push them and have them dig deeper,” she said. 

With dance, she encourages students to “dance as you love to do it.” 

“We want students to layer and texture it, to create movement, color and dimension,” she said. 

Taking over for West his fall will be former Albion Middle School dance teacher Lindsay Christensen.

“She’s a good fit and knows the community,” said West.

As she leaves costumes and the history and philosophy of the dance classes behind, she said it’s up to Christensen to move forward with the program. 

With the rebuild of Brighton Hall set to begin this fall, dance classes will move to a new studio in the planned field house. 

“I loved our old studio and didn’t want to come to this one,” she said about the move five years ago to the Bengal building. “I insisted on windows if I were to move. Now, I notice how beautiful the surroundings are every morning.” 

Even though West plans to be busy with her own teaching, she said, “If I ever get really lonely, I know I can come back and pop in to teach a lesson. That’s the fun part. I can leave the responsibility behind.” 

West compares her time at Brighton to raising her two daughters, both of whom were dancers. 

“It’s like having a baby. It’s new, beautiful, fresh and pink and needs nurturing and love to grow. Then, it’s time to let go and see how she grows and sustains from your teaching. I feel the same way about this program. It’s time for me to let it go and I hope there will be more nurturing for a long time,” she said. “Lindsay is quite knowledgeable and loves it so I know the program will move forward with her.”