Sequins, Moms, and Social Graces

By Ashley Bean Thornton

My mom worked so hard on me! My whole childhood was a series of experiments to see if she could instill in me what she called “social graces.”   One of her failed experiments was dance lessons. Ugh! When I was seven or eight she signed me up for tap and – double ugh! – ballet. I had no sense of rhythm and I couldn’t really tell my right from my left…hopeless!

Fast forward 45 years or so. My friend Shirley Langston tells me she is starting a Dance Troupe. (I suppressed an “Ugh.”) Miss Shirley runs Restoration Haven, a ministry in the Estella Maxey Complex. She was going to partner with Joy’s School of Dance to provide dance lessons for “her girls” who lived there in the public housing. Really? I thought. Wasn’t there something more important she could be doing for those girls? Maybe something having to do with school work or computers? She was so excited about it though, that despite my prejudice against dance lessons, I accidentally caught some of her enthusiasm.

She named the troupe “Miriam’s Army.” I went to one of their first recitals, a Christmas show complete with red-nosed reindeer and Angels. Since that early show a year or two ago, Miriam’s Army has performed at Juneteenth celebrations, the Waco Cultural Arts Festival, and no telling how many other events around town.   Last week I saw them perform at the NAACP 80th Anniversary Gala. They stole the show dancing their hearts out to “Baby Love” and “Heat Wave” among other familiar favorites. When they finished, the crowd jumped to their feet and gave them a long, loud standing ovation.

Pat and Miriam's Army

Four dancers from Miriam’s Army visit with School Board President, Pat Atkins. (Photo bombing mom in the background!)

After their moment in the spotlight, the dancers marched back to the tables reserved for them and sat through the rest of the banquet program. It was a fine program, but I can’t imagine it was terribly interesting to a bevy of tween-age and teen-age girls.   They sat through it though, with just the occasional restless tapping of their still tap-clad toes, minding their manners and politely pretending to listen. When the event was over, I noticed four of them walk up to WISD School Board President Pat Atkins, introduce themselves, and engage in a some pleasant after-dinner conversation.

Here’s what occurred to me as I watched the four young girls in fringed, sequined dresses with peacock feathers in their hair carry on a conversation with the school board president: These young ladies are learning some social graces!

“Social Graces,” it turns out, is code for “basic stuff you need to know to pave the way for yourself in the big, wide world.” The girls in Miriam’s Army are learning things like being on time to get on the van to go to practice, keeping up with their gear, and working on something they are not good at until they get good at it.  They are learning to smile even when they are nervous.  They are learning how to sit still during a speech even though it’s boring, how to manage at least the basic etiquette involved in a banquet, and how to introduce themselves and have a polite conversation with a grown-up person they don’t really know.   Would I be able to have the job I have now, the life I have now, if I hadn’t learned these kinds of things somewhere along the way?

Being a part of Miriam’s Army is about more than sequins and Motown. It’s about life. Dance team isn’t just a fun, frivolous “extra” that successful people can afford to provide for their children; dance team (and other similar opportunities) is where those children learn how to become successful people.

I did manage to pick up some “social graces” along the way, and they are so automatic to me now that it feels like I was born knowing them. But, I wasn’t. I learned them somewhere – if not in dance lessons, then at speech tournaments, or in choir, or drama or some other opportunity that I probably took for granted at the time. You can’t learn all these kinds of lessons in a classroom.  You learn them by doing something that requires you to perform in public, something that exposes you to new social situations and requires you to meet new and different kinds of people.   When you think about it, children who miss out on these kinds of opportunities are missing a crucial part of their education — just as if they had missed the week in school when you learn about percentages. When you think about it a little longer, you realize that these kinds of opportunities cost time and money, something that the moms in Estella Maxey don’t often have in great supply.

The moms in Estella Maxey want the same thing for their daughters that my mom wanted for me. With the help of Miss Shirley and Joy’s School of Dance, more of them are able to provide their girls opportunities to develop the “social graces.”  We should all want that for these girls. The confident tap-dancers who are introducing themselves to the school board president now will be the confident young women who are introducing themselves to college admissions officers and employers in the very near future. We all benefit if they are successful!

Would it give you joy to help support this ministry? A dance troupe requires dance outfits. Miriam’s Army saves money by purchasing their outfits second hand. They purchase three outfits every spring, one each for ballet, tap and Hip-Hop. Their invoice for outfits this year is around $3,000. The girls and moms have worked really hard selling popcorn and raffle tickets in addition to paying a hard-won $25 registration fee. They have raised over $1,000; they need to raise about $2,000 more. Contributions designated for Miriam’s Army can be sent to Restoration Haven, P O Box 875 Waco TX 76703 or donate on-line by clicking here:

Ashley Thornton 3This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, the Manager of the website and the editor of the WHOLE Enchilada newsletter. The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco.

If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.


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