One of the first things that needed changing was the hard floor. Jillian Barber could scarcely believe that she'd been hired to launch Annapolis High School's dance program in a room that clearly was not suited for dance.
So she started from the bottom: first the floor, then other equipment and additional mirrors on all four walls. And still only six students showed up to try out for the school's first after-school dance company nine years ago.
"Only three had any idea of what they were showing up for," said Barber.
Today, the school's soft-surfaced dance room floor beckons those eager to learn such disciplines as ballet and modern dance. As Annapolis High School's dance company director, Barber gets about 60 students who try out for each of the two dance company auditions she holds each year. Her walls are draped with newspaper articles about students who have made all-county dance teams.
Barber's efforts recently earned her the top award for a dance education teacher in the state, the Maryland Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance Teacher of the Year. School officials said the award goes to a teacher with at least five years' experience who conducts a "balanced" curriculum while implementing creative methods and promoting health and fitness.
"The dance program at AHS was pretty much nonexistent before Jillian arrived. She has built the program from scratch," Anne Arundel schools dance consultant Judi Fey said about Barber. "She is organized, creative, approaches dance class academically, and has wonderful rapport with students, faculty and administration. She is a great role model for her students."
Said Barber, "It's really quite nice to be recognized. We [dance instructors] all do a lot. We work hard, we do a lot for our students. To be recognized as a teacher of anything, not just a dance teacher, to be recognized among our colleagues is always a good feeling."
The 31-year-old Arnold resident and Towson University graduate relishes making an impact in a county rich in dance programs. She also teaches pupils as co-director of the countywide High School Dance Ensemble. Fey said she still remembers Barber performing in roles as a child for the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis. A toe injury sidelined her as a teenager, but she remained involved with the craft, ultimately taking up dance at Broadneck High School.
"I was injured when I was a ballet dancer, and you know by the time you're 13 whether you're going to be a professional or not," said Barber. "I knew I wasn't going to be, but I still had such a love for it.
"My mom said, 'You will be involved with something at your school,' " Barber said. "I wasn't an athlete, I didn't play any sports. She pressed being involved, so it was either going to be student government or something. And Broadneck High was starting their dance program when I got there. I started dancing in high school and I loved it. It kind of saved the injury. It didn't hurt as much in these other forms of dance."
A few months after graduating from Towson, she landed the job at Annapolis High, which she said one of the few Anne Arundel County schools without a dance program. Drawing from observations of other programs, Barber crafted a curriculum that currently includes ballet, modern dance, choreography and tap. She also offers lessons on careers in dance and dancer health.
"She's a wonderful choreographer," said Annapolis High sophomore Lauren Sullivan, 15. "She's very charismatic, very on point with things and very strong-willed."
Annapolis High senior Ben Shepard, 17, said he began taking Barber's classes having solely a ballet background. The all-county performer said that his range of disciplines has expanded to where "I don't have a comfort zone anymore. From taking classes with her I've been able to expand to modern jazz, improv, and I've learned a lot from those styles of dance."
Rachel Kennelly, director of Old Mill High School's dance program and co-director of the Anne Arundel County High School Dance Ensemble, said that Barber's enthusiasm drives "even the most reluctant of dancers."
Kennelly and Barber say that dance teachers aim to ensure that the discipline remains a viable part of high school curriculum and activities, which nowadays are increasingly geared toward the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math.
"As STEM becomes increasingly central in our schools, we as dance teachers have a responsibility to embrace that focus in our own classes," Kennelly said. "Dance, like all the arts, is intrinsically STEM-oriented, and I believe that our classes can really ignite an excitement about the STEM possibilities within the arts."
She said that the dance industry teaches students technology through multimedia. It encourages engineering, Kennelly said, by enabling students to create artistic movements from specific sets of instructions.
"Mathematics," she said," is everywhere in dance — using different rhythms and patterns in choreography, the angles and shapes your body can make in different movements.
"Additionally, most of our dance classes are filled with an overwhelming majority of female students," Kennelly added, "and I truly believe dance teachers should play an essential role in encouraging the participation of female students in STEM fields."
Barber said that as the program she launched nears its 10th year, she hopes it will continue to expand.
"I'd love to grow it to a point where we even need another teacher," she said.