I Remember: Dance coach's example still inspires

Submitted photo Amy Jones coached dance at East Celebrity Elite Gym in Oakdale and led her teams to national and world championships.

Editor's note: "I Remember" features essays from our readers about the people, places and events that have touched their lives.

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“Did you have a good time? You’re going to come back, right?”

Oh, I’d be coming back for sure. I’d end up dancing on her team for six years after that first practice with her. Even after I’d graduated and gone away for college I’d still come back and visit.

I had the good fortune of meeting Amy Jones, or “AJ,” in the seventh grade. I didn’t yet know the specifics of all that she would teach me in the years I knew her — impressive dance moves, how to make my hair into a mohawk, to name a couple. I didn’t yet know that she’d lead our team to back-to-back All-Star Dance Worlds championship titles. I didn’t yet know the abundance of life lessons I’d learn from her or the lifetime’s worth of laughs we’d share. And I didn’t yet know that I would have to say goodbye to her so soon. But when I first met her I could tell that this bubbly blonde dance coach with a contagious smile would have a tremendous impact on my life.

AJ would transform me from a shy seventh grader who liked to dance to the dancer I am today; confident on stage and confident in myself. A better dancer, sure. More importantly, an all-around better person from having known AJ.

“It’s embarrassing to be embarrassed!”

A classic AJ quote. The performance aspect of our dance routines was so important. She wanted us to be comfortable, confident, and even a little bit cocky while we were dancing. We had to entertain the crowd, the panel of judges, and even ourselves. We had to have confidence in ourselves that we could embody the attitude of the routines. If we felt like we looked goofy, we were probably doing it right! The routines AJ created basically required us to be actors in addition to dancers. I’ve been a zombie, a circus clown, and a bad-ass with a mohawk. I’ve danced to everything from DMX to Selena Gomez to the Beastie Boys and everything in between.

AJ taught us dancers that even if we made mistakes, it really didn’t matter. If we kept the performance strong and entertained the crowd with facial expressions, the routine would still be successful. Even if we had the worst day for whatever reason, if it didn’t show on our faces everything would be fine.

AJ was always one who practiced what she preached. No matter what kind of day she had, she always wore that big bright smile.

“Give it your all! Remember to have fun up there!”

Everything AJ did, she did it big. Her Halloween costumes were always on point — she dressed up as the creepy doll from the “Saw” movies, Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump, and Lady Gaga, just to name a few.

“Yell for each other, guys! You’re a team, cheer each other on!” AJ would always call out encouraging reminders to the team as we practiced our routine at the gym. AJ made us work hard and practice intricate details. We conditioned, ran suicides, did pushups, everything you’d expect from any sports team. But she knew how to have fun.

In my final season before I graduated highschool, we had shirts made that read “Work Hard, Play Harder.” Our team motto was “fun equals success.” I can’t recall a practice where we didn’t take a break from dancing to film a video of random shenanigans, or listen to AJ tell a funny story about her cat, Ninja.

She’s still the most vivacious person I’ve met.

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

This quote became AJ’s motto as she battled cancer. She had always seemed to find the positive in any situation. But as her illness worsened, then she really had to take the good with the bad, and the good with the worse.

It’s been difficult to adjust to life without her physically here. It’s been hard to get used to visiting the gym and not getting a big hug and a greeting of her signature “Hey girl, hey.” But my memories of her vitality are still intact. If I’m having a bad day, I never stay down for long because something AJ taught me always makes its way into my mind. Maybe I’m feeling self-conscious during a class presentation, or I’m worried what my classmates will think of me. I’ll get nervous, but only for a moment, because I remember that “it’s embarrassing to be embarrassed” and then I’m at ease.

All the valuable things she taught me are ingrained; they’ve become muscle memory from those seven cherished years of rehearsal and practice. She taught me it’s much greater to go through life with a laugh and a smile, so when it rains now, I can’t help but flounce about and breathlessly leap across puddles.

Thanks to AJ, I dance in the rain.

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Nikki Haggan lives in Waterford.

Amy Jones coached dance at East Celebrity Elite Gym in Oakdale and led her teams to national and world championships. She lost her battle with cancer at age 27. To read more about her life and learn about the“I love you and mean it” fund, which helps athletes in the cheer and dance fields, visit lymifund.com or find it on Facebook.

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