Tracy Solomon teaches her final ballet class at Dothan School of Dance on Wednesday. Solomon is retiring after more than 45 years of teaching.
JAY HARE, DOTHAN EAGLE
by Peggy Ussery
With time, a dance instructor can change a young student’s muscles and how their body turns out, increase their flexibility and train their feet, legs, and back to stretch farther.
“You just can’t teach passion,” longtime Dothan dance teacher Tracy Solomon said.
Those dancers with a drive and passion for dance – even if their technique is not the best – will likely go further than the best technical dancer who has no passion.
“You can tell their drive, their heart, their passion – that, they’re born with,” Solomon said. “God gave that to them. You can’t teach that. You can’t teach drive; you can’t teach passion and love for dance. You just can’t teach it. You can teach steps all day long.”
The trick for dance teachers is to not allow a dancer to burn out at a young age, she said. Even if they want to be in the studio five days a week, they shouldn’t, she said.
Having wrapped up her final dance class, Solomon sat behind her desk at Dothan School of Dance. Nearby, a sign leaned against one of two throne chairs in the office. It read: “The Legend Has Retired.” It was a bittersweet day for Solomon, who after 45 years as the owner of the Dothan School of Dance chose to take her final bow as a dance instructor and business owner.
Solomon has turned over the reins of the Dothan dance school to her daughter, Ashlie Wells. Solomon’s Enterprise School of Dance has been sold to Christina Hardy, a fellow instructor and a board member of the Southeast Alabama Dance Company.
“I’m known around the area as a very strict and disciplined teacher – I am, I am that,” Solomon said. “I’ve mellowed some in my old age, but still the art form of ballet is a very disciplined art form.”
Solomon’s former dance students have an impressive list of accomplishments – they’ve become Rockettes as well as Miss Alabama winners and a Miss America winner (she taught Heather Whitestone). They’ve danced in a Justin Beiber video, on Broadway, and choreographed for Cher.
They are ballet dancers and doctors and teachers and even a U.S. Senate candidate. Teaching young dancers was what Solomon knew she wanted to do from a young age.
“I just knew that I loved teaching; I knew that that was exactly what God put me here to do,” Solomon said. “There was no question about it.”
She started dancing when she was 8 years old at Inez’s School of Dance – a one-room dance studio located near Cherokee Avenue and West Main Street. When she was 11, she came under the tutelage of Dothan School of Dance’s original owner. By 15, she was teaching dance classes at the school and hit the road to teach at different locations when she was 16.
“When I graduated I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Solomon said. “My heart was so big to teach young children, but I realized I had a lot more to learn too.”
After high school, she went off to Kent State University for two summers to attend Dance Masters of America teacher’s training school. While she learned how to be a teacher, she also studied with the Joffrey Ballet in New York City and with renowned jazz dancer and choreographer Gus Giordano in Chicago.
At 20, Solomon’s parents agreed to take the money saved for her college and help her buy into Dothan School of Dance as a partner in 1976. A year later, Solomon became sole owner of the school. She had great mentors that she turned to on a regular basis.
“I was so young; I had so much to learn,” Solomon said. “I learned so many lessons the hard way... I burned a lot of bridges when I was young. I learned a lot of lessons growing up that I’ll never forget. I believe it’s God’s purpose to put things into your life to make you smarter, to make you more knowledgeable, and I still am learning lessons every day about this business.”
By 1979, Solomon saw that the dance studio and a yearly recital wasn’t enough of an outlet for the young dancers she was training. She founded the Dothan Ballet and Dance Company, a nonprofit dance company with a board of directors. Later, the company became what is known as the Southeast Alabama Dance Company, or SEADAC. Solomon was the company’s artistic director for 25 years before she took on the role as executive director. Her daughter now serves as SEADAC’s artistic director.
Solomon plans to stay on as executive director of SEADAC, now in its 44th year with Solomon hoping to lead it to its 50th year before she steps aside.
In the more than four decades since Solomon became owner of the Dothan School of Dance, the business outgrew two other sites before Solomon purchased the former Rex appliance store on Ross Clark Circle near West Main. Solomon opened the Enterprise School of Dance, which has 250 students, in 1996.
With a black and white checkered exterior, the 16,000-square-foot Dothan school has five studios, and runs 85 dance classes a week for 360 students. From the brightly-painted interior to the geometric floor designs, the office throne chairs, and opulent furnishings in the lobby, the school was decorated with Solomon’s tastes in mind and to make young dancers feel happy upon entering. The decorator knew Solomon personally.
“I just have a different taste,” Solomon said. “I don’t want to be like everybody else at all. I don’t like the same thing that everybody else likes. I want to be unique; I want to be different.”
Solomon began seriously thinking about retirement about a year ago after her daughter indicated she was ready to take over the school. But it was when her husband, Arch Solomon, underwent a quadruple bypass and valve repair at UAB Hospital in February that Solomon said she knew it was time to step back.
“My time, our time, is just too precious,” she said. “I’m about to be 64 this year, so I just think it’s time.”
A dance teacher’s job is different from other jobs, she said. Dance students typically arrive for classes after school, which means a dance teacher often can’t attend their own children’s or grandchildren’s activities or even be home in time to cook supper for their family. Solomon said she’s ready to do normal family activities and travel with her husband.
“My husband’s even talking about getting a Winnebago, whatever you call those things, a motor home,” Solomon said, laughing. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that or not.”