By Whitney Bermes

As a teenager, Jennifer Waters taught kids to dance in a tiny studio fashioned in her mother’s Idaho garage.

The younger Waters helped her mom teach jazz, ballet, tap, and hip-hop, and began leading her own classes when she was just 14. She worked as many as five hours at the studio each day after school, and taught classes on weekends. Additionally, Waters spent time honing her own craft, dancing with school teams and for dance companies.

“I didn’t have a lot of free time as a kid,” says Waters who, now at 36, still fills after-school hours with dance instruction. “I was just addicted. Completely addicted to dance.”

On a sunny April afternoon outside the closed double doors leading into the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in Big Sky, Montana, the sound of children’s laughter was crystal clear. Inside, eight preschoolers

Ava Staudt does the "pony" with Devan Miller (left) and Piper Dodd (right). PHOTO BY WES OVERVOLD

Ava Staudt does the “pony” with Devan Miller (left) and Piper Dodd (right). PHOTO BY WES OVERVOLD

occupied the stage, dancing and prancing, shaking and jumping along to Waters’ seasoned instruction.

“Hands together. Ready position,” Waters told the kids, ranging in age from 4 to 6. “Do you have your smiles on?” Waters starts the music and the children begin a short ballet routine called the “Magic Dance” that Waters kindly coaches them through, her strong, elegant frame sitting cross-legged in front of them.

This return to teaching kids dance has become a nearly full-time job and a new title – the “Dance Lady.” “It’s kind of funny to be known as the Dance Lady,” Waters said, flashing a bright smile. “I’m OK with it.”

Not long after moving from Boise, Idaho to Big Sky with her husband Justin in December of 2011, Waters hashed out a plan to get back to teaching. “I told every single person I met that I was looking for a place to teach a dance class. I was just really missing it,” said Waters, who worked at Big Sky Resort’s Paparazzi Fur and Leather when she first moved to town.

Thanks to some grassroots networking, in 2012 Waters started teaching an after-school program at Ophir School, as well as Santosha Wellness Studio and the resort. The next winter she rented the cafeteria at Ophir, holding fall and winter dance sessions.

This year Waters moved to WMPAC, adding a spring session that now includes ballet, tap, jazz, creative movement and parent-led classes. She also has plans for a short summer camp in August. “It was my dream to offer more than just ballet,” she said. “I want to expose these kids to all the [dance] styles.”

For Waters, teaching children is a way to remain youthful, a way to share her passion, a way to connect to the Big Sky community. “I feel like I’m like the female version of Peter Pan and I don’t want to grow up,” she said, laughing. “I just love their imagination. It’s so fun watching them change

Waters and her ballet students form a circle, preparing to plié. PHOTO BY WES OVERVOLD

Waters and her ballet students form a circle, preparing to plié. PHOTO BY WES OVERVOLD

and learn and use their creativity.”

No matter the style, dance helps kids with many aspects of their lives, Waters explained. It’s exercise. It’s socialization. It’s memorization. It’s coordination. And it’s confidence.

“When they finish, they feel so good about themselves and a sense of belonging,” she said. “I want them to learn in my class how to set your mind to something and accomplish it.”

Shana Seelye sat back in her seat at the performing arts center, watching as her 6-year-old daughter Frankie tapped away on the stage. Frankie started with Waters in 2013 and has taken part in a few of her sessions. “[Frankie] has a really good time,” Seelye said. “Jennifer’s so good with them – the patience of a saint.”

Over the years, Waters’ dancing and instruction have built her Dance Lady identity, something she hopes to share with her students for years to come.

Whitney Bermes is a born-and-raised Montana writer living in Bozeman. When she’s not writing, Whitney enjoys hiking, drinking microbrews and exploring southwestern Montana.

This story was first published in the summer 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.