WINONA – Claire Gaines has danced nearly all her life – 71 years to be exact – first as a student and then as a teacher. This year, following her 50th recital as a teacher, Gaines will hang up her dancing shoes and retire. Saturday’s annual recital will be her last.
“I have been dancing for 71 years,” Gaines said. “Taking lessons from my mother [Susan Allen] at the age of three and growing up in a dance family was quite an experience -- one I wouldn’t change for the world.”
Gaines’ mother opened the Susan Allen School of Dance in Winona in 1940, and Gaines and her sister, Jane Parks, were among the hundreds of students Allen taught over the years. Dance was a part of life for the Allen family.
“I just grew up dancing,” Gaines said. “That’s all we knew.”
After graduating from Winona High School, Gaines went on to the University of Mississippi, where she earned a degree in Education. Right out of college, Gaines got a job teaching Kindergarten in Oxford, and when a family approached her about teaching dance, she agreed.
“I taught three children dance in my little apartment,” Gaines said.
The next year, Gaines decided to teach dance full time in Oxford, and she had around 90 students sign up.
“I guess it was meant to be,” Gaines said. “I rented a room in the National Guard Armory, and thus began my lifetime career. I have never regretted it.”
Gaines said she loved working with children, and teaching dance gave her a chance to work with children of all ages, something she wasn’t able to do just teaching Kindergarten.
“I love children – all ages, and I love variety,” Gaines said. “With dance, no age is the same, and I was never bored. I hope my students weren’t bored. I enjoyed dancing with them and making it fun.”
A few years later, Gaines moved to Senatobia, and she taught dance there before returning to home to Winona, where she met her husband, Wayne, and started a family.
“Those years, I taught in Eupora,” Gaines said. “Mother taught there at one time, but they needed a dance teacher. I taught there seven years and then started helping Mother in Winona.”
When her youngest child, Heather, started school, Gaines began teaching at the Susan Allen School of Dance fulltime. The rest is history.
“Move to life’s music, for it is a beautiful dance,” Gaines said.
Gaines said her late husband, Wayne Gaines, was the quintessential “dance husband.”
“[Wayne] helped me with everything,” Gaines said. “He loved the children like I did, and they loved him. Over the years, he was the sound man, video and lighting man, scenery guy, in charge of props, and my sounding board. It’s not the same without him.”
Gaines said over the years, the Susan Allen School of Dance offered classes to children and adults. She taught tumbling classes, adult ballroom classes, exercise classes, and more.
“In 1990, my mother retired,” Gaines said. “But she didn’t retire; she became a director. I learned something from my mother every day up until the January before she died in March .”
Several people have helped Gaines at the Susan Allen School of Dance. Her sister, Jane, who taught dance in Grenada, as well as both her daughters, Ashley Gaines Bauch and Heather Gaines Rodgers, and now Jami Haley, who will continue the Susan Allen School of Dance with her own studio after Gaines’ retirement, have assisted Gaines in teaching over the years.
“My family has always been involved with the school,” Gaines said. “I taught both daughters. Ashley helped with tumbling when she was in school and with recitals. Heather also helped when she was married and working as a speech pathologist.”
Gaines said her sister, Jane, helped teach the elementary pre-school students.
Seven years ago, Haley, a former student, called Gaines about her desire to teach dance. Haley began taking dance classes from Gaines at the age of three and continued through high school graduation. She majored in music at Mississippi University for Women, and when she returned to Winona, she called Gaines about teaching dance.
“Jami called on the right day,” Gaines said. “I was thinking of retiring, but I wanted to make 50 years. I asked her if she wanted to come and help me. She has been with me for seven years, and she has been wonderful. She had been a student instructor for me in high school, and helped with summer camps, been in competition groups, and was a graduate of MUW. I knew I could work with her.”
Gaines said with Haley continuing dances classes at her own studio after she retired, she felt good about her decision.
“I could not retire if not for Jami,” Gaines said. “I know our dancers will be in the best hands as she opens her own studio. I wish her all the luck in the world and hope she can celebrate 50 years of teaching someday.”
In looking back over her 50 years of teaching, Gaines said she remembers something about every student.
“When [a student] was here all the way through graduation, I feel like they are mine,” she said. “I know so much about them.”
Gaines said tap has always been her favorite genre of dancing to teach, but she loves all types of dance. And like everything else, dancing has evolved over the years, and Gaines has evolved with it. After teaching for 50 years, Gaines has found inspiration for fresh ideas through new music or something she sees on television or in a movie.
“You see something and that will spur your creativity,” Gaines said. “I will dream about something, and I’d wake up in the morning, and I’d write it down.”
Although she has choreographed hundreds of dances throughout the years, she has her favorites, dances she remembers by the song or a certain class of dancers.
“Everything that [Haley’s] class did was great,” Gaines said. “They were an outstanding class.”
She recalled two numbers, “Smooth Criminal” and “Mr. White Keys, one class performed, and “Dancing Fool” from another.
“I like the real fast tap numbers,” Gaines said. “[At this year’s recital] “Sing Sing Sing” is one of my favorites.”
Teacher her own daughters were highlights of Gaines’ career, recalling senior recitals for each of them. She said at Heather’s senior recital, she joined her on stage for a dance. That was the last time Gaines performed on stage – until this year.
“Every recital is a highlight to me,” Gaines said. “It is hectic, but the night of the recital, I have more fun than anyone.”
Her 50th recital, and 79th for the Susan Allen School of Dance, will be something to remember. Not only are former students returning to dance for the occasion, but Gaines will dance herself.
“I haven’t danced on stage since 1994 when I danced with Heather,” she said. “But I am doing it. I’m determined.”
Gaines will perform a number with daughters Ashley and Heather and her granddaughter, Ella. In addition, she will join several friends who learned dancing with her from Susan Allen. Pam Pittman Ohlis, Christy George Sanders, and sister Jane Parks will tap dance to “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
“All of these women have taught dancing themselves,” Gaines said. “We have had more fun practicing that dance.”
Gaines said former students, Julie Herod and Chase Welch, will also be performing at the recital.
“[Julie and Chase] have gotten up a routine, and they have pulled in a couple of other [former students], Bailey Cook, Jessica Loftin, and Rachel [Watkins] and Butler [Flowers] will be dancing together. Colton Jenkins is going to dance with Bailey, and that is going to be a showstopper.”
Gaines said Cook was a “lifesaver” this year, as she filled in for Haley as a teacher when Haley was out for maternity leave.
“When [Cook] got off work, she came to the studio,” Gaines said. “She is wonderful with kids. She saved my life this year. Everything went like clockwork when Bailey came on. Even when Jami came back in January, Bailey stayed on and has been a member of the studio since then.”
Gaines said her biggest blessing in life is the friendships she has made over the years.
“I consider my richest blessings along the way are all the wonderful people I have had the privilege of knowing and loving,” she said. “I will miss seeing the children, but I have all the best memories.”
This year’s annual recital of the Susan Allen School of Dance will be held this Saturday, May 18, at 4 p.m. for pre-school and elementary classes and at 6 p.m. for the junior high and high school classes in the Winona High School Auditorium. Tickets are available through current students, or by calling _____________.
Following the recital, a retirement reception will be held at the Winona Community House and the community is invited to attend.