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Passing the performing arts baton

Passing the performing arts baton

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The power of influence is real, and it can spread through the generations. Jennifer Young, director of Blue Ridge Performing Arts Academy, is a perfect example. The daughter of educators, Young also is an educator whose students now have students of their own.

Young has been a performing arts instructor in the community for more than 40 years, offering students opportunities to perform recreationally, competitively and even professionally. On June 7, Young will be placing the academy in her protégé Brittany Alexander’s hands, and it will be renamed A-List Dance Academy.

Young, 57, had once thought she’d be teaching well into her 80s, telling herself, “When I’m too old to teach the youth of the community, I’ll be teaching the nursing home men and women the cha-cha.”

But a diagnosis of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, changed her plans. The nervous system disease weakens muscles and impacts physical function, according to the Mayo Clinic. The condition is rare, chronic, incurable, and the cause is unknown.

The disease has put Young in a wheelchair and made it difficult for her to speak; however, Young doesn’t dwell on her health’s decline. Instead, she expresses gratitude.

“I am so fortunate to have the family and friends that I do,” she said. “They take me [to the studio] and pick me up so that I’m able to participate [teaching from her wheelchair] with the girls I’ve been teaching for 16 years.”

Young was exposed to dance at a young age when her parents took her to the dance hall [known then as the Roanoke Civic Center] where they’d dress up and go ballroom dancing. She watched the couples dance and sometimes get to dance with her dad.

Young credited her parents, Joe Ben and Joyce Ann Jamison, for inspiring her to pursue the performing arts.

At 7 years old, she started taking ballet and tap lessons from Ray Hollingsworth. As a teen, she added pointe, modern, jazz and hip hop dance to her repertoire.

Young was 15 years old when Hollingsworth asked her to start teaching younger children at the studio. “I was ecstatic because he was my idol and reminded me of Fred Astaire who I grew up watching,” she recalled.

After graduating from Franklin County High School, Young began teaching on her own. She taught at four fire stations for two years, giving donations for use of the space.

When she was 22, Young opened Jennifer’s School of Dance in rented space in the basement of Hollywood Beauty Salon.

Just as flexibility is necessary in dance, Young learned that it’s also needed in business. After three years with her studio, she began commuting to Roanoke to work full time in the insurance industry while still teaching dance on the side.

Eleven years later she was back working in Franklin County, which helped her better keep up with her 10-year-old daughter Lynanne Jamison’s numerous activities. During this time, Young also taught dance for the Franklin County Family YMCA from 1997 until 2006.

In 2006, Young opened her own studio in a rented building where Sheetz is today. Flexibility again came into play when, in December 2009, she was notified the building would be demolished in 30 days to make way for Sheetz.

“My daughter swooped in and helped me find another location,” Young recalled. She then moved the studio to the upper level of the Wray building in downtown Rocky Mount where she stayed for nine years.

The academy moved once again in 2018 to its current spot at 455 S. Main St.

Hannah Wiggonton began studying under Young when Wiggonton was 8 years old. “I was a really shy kid, but when I performed on stage, I always felt at home,” she said. “Jennifer knew this, and nurtured my talent and built my confidence from the start. I got to play two of my biggest dream roles under her direction (Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Annie from Annie).

Some of Young’s other students have included McKenna Hamrick, who auditioned for “The Voice;” Asher Walker who made it to the top 20 of “So You Think You Can Dance;” and Davanna Law, a cheerleader with the New York Jets.

“Jennifer or J-Lo as I call her, helped me gain confidence in myself and my abilities,” Hamrick said. “She helped me realize how important music is to me and how I could share it with others.”

Young’s love for teaching and working with children, plus the opportunity to be creative, is what she’s most enjoyed about her work.

“As a parent, I found Jennifer to be very supportive and encouraging,” said Hamrick’s mother, Debbie. “She wanted her students to do the best at whatever their best was.”

One of the biggest challenges for Young has been to come up with new ideas for 20 different dances each year. “I pride myself on coming up with ideas I’ve never seen before.”

Over the years, Young has averaged about 130 students per year. Her 15th and final recital as director of the Blue Ridge Performing Arts Academy will be at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake on June 5 and 6.

Young described the change in business ownership as bittersweet. While she will miss her work, she has confidence in Alexander’s leadership. “Brittany has always been one of my most talented and gifted students and teachers,” Young said. “She just picked things up so quickly and is so passionate about what she does.”

Alexander began dancing at age 3 and started taking Young’s classes at the YMCA when she was about 10.

As she looks at the business transition, Alexander, who has been teaching under Young for the last 10 years, said, “She has taught me so many things over the years and now it is my turn to hopefully teach and inspire as many people as I can. I see this as an opportunity to start something new and achieve my dream of owning my own studio. This opportunity has me nervous but mainly excited for the future that A-List Dance Academy will bring for me and the students we will be teaching.”

For Young, she plans to take life day by day, she said. Until she came down with symptoms, Young had never heard of ALS; however, she said she’s hopeful that by her sharing her story she can help someone else.

“If I can be of any help to anybody with ALS, I’m just a phone call away,” she said, adding that she appreciates the prayers of support. “Please pray for my family that they will be blessed with comfort.”

While Young battles ALS, her mother fights Parkinson’s Disease. Young and her husband, Jeff, had moved in to care for her, but now Jeff has become a caregiver to both women while also working full time for Franklin County Public Schools.

With home health care, out-of-town doctor visits and other expenses, the bills for the family are rapidly mounting. To help with medical costs, a bingo benefit has been planned for May 23 at Willow Creek Country Club, starting at 4 p.m. The event will include a 50-50 raffle, door prizes and a silent auction.

Family friend Andrea Wolfe, whose daughter, Michaela, has been a student of Young’s for 14 years, has been helping with fundraising for Young. “She’s given so much to the community,” Wolfe said. “I’d like to have the community have a chance to give back to her.”

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