Life Lessons & Dance

Story by Susan Chesser

Photo by Liz Chrisman

The story of the retired dance and gymnastics instructor who has been a part of the Russellville community since the early 1960’s is one of a tiny dancer following her leading man across the “pond.” Born in Kensington of London, England, Ann Taylor brought her love for dance, her love of children, and her beautiful imagination with her. ​

The Early Years

Ann recalls standing on the edge of the River Thames in 1944. Following a battle during the second World War, the German Forces had killed many of their men. “I watched the barges, the rafts, the big boats, the little boats, “Ann says,” anything that would float coming up the River Thames back to London.” She was only six years old when she and her family, horrified, watched the injured, crippled and dying English soldiers float past to safety on debris from a battle. “Our soldiers were stranded and the Germans just slaughtered them,” Ann says. “They got on anything that would float to get back to England.”

She describes it as a terrible scene. “I don’t know why they let me see that,” she says. “They must have thought I needed to store that.” The vivid memories came back as she spoke. Some things we never forget.

“The planes would fly through London and over to Surrey, the outskirts. The Germans would get rid of weight. They would drop their doodle bombs wherever.” Ann’s parents shipped her grandmother and her to Liverpool, which had already been bombed, to stay with an uncle for one year to keep them safe.

Ann describes her early self as so painfully shy that she hid behind her mother. Her parents, in an effort to draw their only child out of her timidity, enrolled her in dance. She took to dancing right away. As Ann was introduced to classical ballet at an early age, she instinctively made the technical and exacting routines into something inventive and creative as a means to enjoy her practice. “You had to have a love for music. In those days it would be Classical,” Ann says. “I’m very inventive, very creative. I had to find a way to make it fun.” Young Ann knew that inserting her imagination into rote exercise would make her a better dancer. It also instilled in her the ability to relate to children. It was how her methodology for teaching was born.

Making the Big Leap

Eventually, Ann was courted by an American soldier named Bill Taylor where he was stationed in Naples, Italy. Their swirling romance brought her to Russellville, where she blended in beautifully with the River Valley. “When I go back [to England], they ask me where I’m from in America,” Ann says. “They can’t tell.” Her dialect no longer accented with a crisp ending, the linguistic style is now more casual and relaxed.

Ann gained her U.S. Citizenship in 1966. She began her career as a dance instructor in Russellville in 1971, renting the long back area of the Hughes Center. As her classes grew, she also rented the stage and added teachers. Eventually she bought her own building where she taught both dance and competitive gymnastics.

Ann’s teaching philosophy involves making technical dance and gymnastics fun. She enjoys instructing the students in such a way that they don’t realize they’re learning. For example, the children’s area she designed consisting of pits and ponds with balance beam bridges are an imaginative child’s reverie. She described the hidden passageways as opportunities for children to explore what could be frightening. “Children are often afraid of the dark,” Ann says. “As parents we often say the wrong things to make it even more scary.”

Ann’s method of teaching is simple, really. “My teaching philosophy is number one — let them know you care about them,” Ann says. “When we were power tumbling [a gymnastics discipline], all four corners were going. Coaches just stand there and they say ‘next, next.’ I got on to my coaches for that. I say ‘Come on! Let’s go.’ Enthusiasm — parents love that because it shows that you care about the kids.”

Ann says the most important child is the one who needs help but then clarifies that they’re all important. “I’ve seen the kid that needs a little encouragement, that can only hop skip down on one leg,” she says. ‘I would grab their hand and do whatever they were doing to get across that floor and make them feel special. We’re not all gifted with great motor skills, gross motor skills, especially. That is something that I would encourage parents to do much earlier. The technique of ballet is very technical and it’s [in the] mind. When you start teaching very young children the technique of ballet, chances are unless they have some kind of gift they’re going to quit. So do creative things. There are so many things you can do in circles and in squares and pageants you can make where they’re all having fun.”>>

Ann believes that having a window for parents to watch their children learn is important for the parents. “It’s important for bonding,” Ann explains. For her classes, she would have children dance with their mothers for Mother’s Day and their fathers for Father’s Day. “I had fathers who were so embarrassed because they had never done anything like that,” Ann says “If we could get their legs on the bar we would stretch them a little bit. Their little girl or boy would be telling their parents what to do.”

Ann further explained that dance teaches discipline. “That’s a very common thing that you can get out of an average child or a talented child,” Ann says. ‘It is important to group them at the same level, so they don’t get discouraged.

Children Need Praise

Ann also believes in positive reinforcement to motivate learning. “Praise is what we lack in raising children,” she says. “Praise is what they need.

Sometimes I see a mother, and the kid maybe touches something. The mother grabs the kid and swats its behind. When my children were very young, what they wanted to touch, I would get hold of it and I would show them. I would let them hold it and then put it back. That did wonders for the child.”

Ann is not a proponent of corporal punishment explaining it doesn’t get the long term results. She explains, “They [children] are little now, but when they grow up, how are you going to discipline that bear?” She raises her arms to describe a much larger human.

As a preschool Sunday School teacher for many years, Ann says, “I am a strong Christian. Whatever you believe, I support. Christians sometimes try to shove people way too early. I never wanted to be guilty of that.”

Looking Back and Moving Forward

What about regrets? “You often wonder, would you do the same things?” Ann says. “You can’t answer that. Whatever you do, that is what you do.”

However, there was one thing she wished she would have done. Ann expressed a strong desire to have participated in prison ministry for men. “If these men had had nurturing when they were little boys between ages one and five, they would not be in that prison.”

A widow now, Ann’s two sons and daughter are who she spends most of her time with. Her daughter Jane was an Arkansas gymnastic champion and recently researched the family, discovering that Ann had two siblings she had never met or even known of. Now, Ann enters this new chapter in her life with a younger half-sister and a half-brother. She was recently able to speak to her half-sister.

“I think I am very intuitive. I always knew they were there,” Ann says. “I had this feeling that I was not the only one. In those days, they just didn’t talk about it.” The siblings plan to meet when Ann can travel to England.

When asked if your life were a book, what would be the title, Ann replies, “Live each day like it is your last.”