Heritage High dance teacher crowned best in U.S.

Kimberleigh Anderson named National Dance Educator of the Year

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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Kimberleigh Anderson walked along the line of sweating, panting students in the Heritage High School gym.

“They hate me today,” she said with a wide grin.

But she well knows that the teen-age students -- whom she calls “her babies” -- don’t hate her, even after having to sprint up and down the long gym on Wednesday. Many of them keep coming back to her dance classes, and hundreds have already signed up for her program next year.

And her popularity just swelled beyond the Evergreen school district’s boundaries.

Anderson was proclaimed the National Dance Educator of the Year by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. She received her award in Boston this month and soon will share her program’s successful methods with other dance teachers nationwide.

Anderson started at Heritage when the school opened in 1999. She was hired as a math teacher who also taught one dance class. Anderson had danced since she was a small child. She enjoyed combining the two subjects.

“In math, you open the textbook and you know exactly what’s next,” she said. “In dance, you have to be much more on your game and fine tune (your teaching) to their personalities.”

When she started, Anderson had 32 students in one dance class. The class took place in the regular gym.

“They were playing dodge ball next to us,” Anderson said with a laugh. “I told the principal that wasn’t going to work.”

The principal at the time moved the weight room into a portable classroom and let Anderson set up a dance studio where the weight machines stood before. Anderson wrote her own curriculum for the dance class.

The program has grown since. Every high school in the district now offers dance, using Anderson’s curriculum. Heritage offers four different classes.

This year, about 180 students take dance at Heritage. Nearly 400 have signed up for next year. Not all of them will actually show up on the first day of classes in the fall, but the program’s continued growth seems assured.

Anderson doesn’t teach math anymore, and the school hired another, half-time teacher to accommodate student interest in dance. It’s unusual for a nonmagnet school to have such a big and successful dance program, Anderson said.

Many students have taken all four dance classes, which fulfill state requirements for physical education or fine arts.

Anderson hopes the district will offer dance to the younger kids in middle and even elementary school, she said. And she’s working on a dance honors class that will give students college credit through Western Washington University.

Students benefit greatly from taking dance, even if they don’t plan on becoming professional dancers, Anderson said.

Dance teaches solving problems in groups, team work, creativity, listening to other people’s ideas and thinking outside the box, she said. It also gives students a healthy pastime they can practice for the rest of their lives.

And you don’t need the typical ballerina body to enjoy dance, Anderson said. Any student is welcome in her program, no matter the body type or general fitness.

“We challenge all students at their level,” she said. “All of them grow in the class.”

And all students perform in a public show at the end of the semester. Every semester. Every student.

The theme for that show varies each semester and is largely based on student suggestions.

“If my kids have an inkling of an idea, we run with it,” Anderson said.

They’ve performed pieces inspired by famous works of art. They’ve brought children’s books to graceful life on stage. And they’ve re-created the alphabet in dance.

That’s most likely part of how Anderson was crowned the country’s best dance teacher. The organization didn’t tell her in which areas she scored most of her points, Anderson said. But on its website, the group says the award goes to an effective teacher who inspires students.

Anderson went through interviews and submitted her curriculum and video recordings of her teaching a class. Now that she holds the national title, Anderson is booked to speak at the group’s upcoming events in Washington, D.C., Montana and in the Seattle area. More are likely to follow.

“The award opens up a lot of doors,” Anderson said.

But Anderson’s pride was more apparent when she showed off the awards won by Heritage’s competitive dance team, which she coaches. The team has won “at least six national titles,” she said. She’s lost count, apparently.

“The recognition is awesome,” Anderson said about the national teacher award. “But the kids are way more important.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.