Retiree Vernon always a ‘mover’ and a lover of the arts
The drums are roaring and the singers are belting out a traditional Puerto Rican call and response.
Dancers in colorful flowing skirts and the occasional fedora prance down the floor in lines, and Tracy Vernon is at the front, a ball of energy, leading them across the dance floor.
To keep everyone on track, she counts aloud, “five, six, seven, eight!” and she runs back to lead the next line of dancers through the sequence. Vernon is teaching her Conjunto de Bomba class with science teacher Nick Shaw, and it can be heard throughout the hallway of the performing arts wing.
This is a regular scene, and any student who’s ever taken one of Vernon’s classes can attest to the kind of energy and presence she brings to all of her classes. Sadly for ARHS, Vernon will be retiring after teaching here for the past 21 years.
The start of her journey
When asked where her dance journey began, Vernon said that she’s “always been a mover.”
Choreographing and freestyling for her family in their living room starting at a very young age, Vernon’s mother decided to enroll her five year old daughter in a ballet class at the local YMCA. The class didn’t end up being a good fit because Vernon didn’t like that everyone was wearing the exact same thing and doing the exact same movements.
Luckily, her mother had another idea. She enrolled her in a class taught by Aunt Cassie, one of the original dancers of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Martha Graham would later become a star in the world of modern dance with a prolific career.
Vernon said that Aunt Cassey’s class “explored the quality of motion” by playing a variety of different music and dancing with various objects such as feathers, scarves, and balloons. Vernon loved it. She felt free to make her own choices and that class was “where it started” for her.
Vernon was a competitive tennis player for ten years, but at some point in her high school career, Vernon began taking dance classes again at a local studio where she learned jazz, tap, modern, and ballet. “It was enough to reconnect me to the dancer I just was from the time I started life,” she said. Although she was offered scholarships and intended to play tennis in college, she said “there wasn’t enough variety for me,” and “wanted something that would offer more creative expression.”
Before graduating high school, she decided to take a gap year to fulfill her dream of studying dance in New York City. Five days a week, she trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. This was huge for her, and she said that it, “put her on the map.” She also trained with Luigi, an originator of jazz technique. Between training with these professional dance teachers and spending her days walking down Broadway, she said she realized that “I wanted dance to be my life.”
Launching her career
After her year in NYC, Vernon enrolled at Jackson University in Florida but missed dancing in the city. When offered an opportunity to dance with an amateur dance company, she took it and took a year off from school to dance in Boston. She then transferred to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which landed her here in the Pioneer Valley. At the time, the dance program there was not to her satisfaction, and so she majored in fine arts which focused on her painting instead.
Within a few years, Vernon returned to dancing and this time professionally. She was then offered a job at a public elementary school in Springfield, right in the heart of Latin King gang territory. Many students were afraid to go to school and failed because of it, so the school decided to bring in professional artists with the hopes of engaging students in a safe environment. Vernon did a three-month residency and fell in love with teaching at public schools. From there, she continued to work at the elementary school and got her master’s degree in education. Upon graduation, she landed her position at ARHS.
Building a program for all
When Vernon first arrived at ARHS, she described the dance program as “small and lost.” Located in the back gym, with trash, crumbs, and a constant flow of students coming and going, dance class felt rather unappealing, she said. Although Vernon was only teaching part-time, she had over 70 students enrolled in her classes and realized she needed more class periods and a different space.
Today’s dance studio used to be a “large group instruction room,” for staff meetings and other PD, and 21 years ago, at Vernon’s request, the school allowed her to take the space for her classes. Today, the dance studio is like a piece of art of itself, the walls covered with murals and photographs, gently lit with warm lights.
Vernon also requested that Dance Theatre Ensemble be a class that students could receive credits for, because at the time, it was just a club. Then, when Vernon was asked to teach Bomba with Mr. Shaw, she agreed to it on one condition: that it too would be an accredited class. By offering a variety of accredited classes, Vernon steadily grew the dance program.
In addition to building a program where students could receive academic credits for dance, Vernon created a culture of emotional safety and inclusivity. Her classes often have people of many different ability levels including those with disabilities, and she is sure to think of modifications so everyone can participate and feel involved in a way that works for them.
All students are also given a space to move and express themselves, which has nothing to do with academic achievement. She said that the highest compliment is when a student says that her class “felt like family, [a place] in which I can be myself.”
Charlie Chham said that description fits. “[Vernon] has the ability to make anyone who walks into her studio feel like they belong and can find themselves,” Chham said.
Junior Veda Ruth Harvey-Ahmai agreed. “I have been a dancer all my life, and having a space in school where I could take a break from my academic classes and the stress that comes with them, and just do something that I truly enjoy has 100% brought light to my days,” she said.
When asked about the legacy of the dance program, Vernon said, “The thing I want to be remembered for, my legacy of the 21 years, is that dance is actually for everyone. Dance should be available to anyone and everyone, even jamming in the passenger seat to tunes they like. Movement should be available to everyone.”
The most memorable event Vernon put together was a concert the year Michael Jackson died. In addition to students from her classes, such as members of Dance Theatre Ensemble, she had more students coming after school to learn more choreographies from their peers. The concert had roughly 90 dancers and the show had a full house. At the end, the audience was invited to dance and celebrate on stage too.
Some other highlights were field trips. Vernon has loved taking students to see professional dance performances at the UMass Fine Arts Center and even Jacob’s Pillow. “I love those moments where I can teach a dance form, and then I can take them to the source of that dance form,” said Vernon.
One time, Vernon also took the Dance Theatre Ensemble to MASS MoCA to perform installation dance performances. They intended to just go in and film themselves doing some improvisation, but at one particular exhibit, they attracted a crowd, who believed that they were an official part of the art installation. Vernon loved this trip for its creativity, spontaneity, and memories.
What dance means to her
“The thing that’s felt really important to me is honoring the physical being in each student, and it needs an outlet. It’s been an incredible joy that I’ve been able to provide that for so many years,” said Vernon.
By teaching in public schools, Vernon offers dance to students that may not otherwise have thought to try dancing or have opportunities to take dance classes. By opening these doors, some of Vernon’s students who never imagined being dancers before went on to become dance majors in college after they took her classes.
“You come in feeling blue, you come in feeling stressed, you didn’t sleep well, whatever it is, but there’s a power within the space as well as the art form of dance, to recall what you’re feeling and transform it,” said Vernon when describing the effects her classes have on students. “Oftentimes I myself, as well as hundreds of other students, have walked out of the dance studio in a better state of being than they walked in with.”
Vernon describes dance as something that has the capability to, “move emotional boulders.”
She shared with me the story of when her brother passed away unexpectedly. Although she could have taken the time off, she decided to go in and teach instead. At the time, she was teaching the dance style Palo, which is the roots of Bomba and it’s about our connection to our ancestors.
Vernon told her students what happened and told them how grateful she was to be dancing with them and particularly that dance. When Vernon dances Palo now, it feels deeply sentimental and she thinks of her brother and everyone she’s lost, but, “not in a way that is sorrowful, in a way that feels powerful, where I feel connected to them.”
Building a program as ambitious, diverse, and accessible as the ARHS dance program is did not come without its challenges. When Vernon was first hired at ARHS, PE credit was awarded to all dance classes, but it was later rescinded. Vernon worked hard to try and reinstate PE credit for dance and still hopes it will go back to the way it used to be.
“[Giving PE credit] was fantastic because there were a lot of students, who don’t feel like athletes and feel like they’ll be the last person called to be on someone’s team,” she said. Those students might end up standing on the side, “not getting exercise, not making new friends, and feeling awkward.”
Vernon said that a lot of those students “ended up becoming dancers, and they got their PE credits.”
Obviously, the PE program has undergone many changes over the last two decades, but Vernon’s belief is that dance is an equally valid way to get exercise and therefore PE credits make sense. She hopes that students will continue to advocate for this.
Vernon also created a whole curriculum dedicated to teaching students how to handle stress in a healthy way. Vernon voluntarily taught students and staff yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises, but it was never approved. The school suggested it could just be an afterschool program, but Vernon insisted that it was something students needed in the context of their day and that it was, “essential to well-being.”
Finally, as many know, a few years ago Vernon was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, which led her to evaluate how long she could continue in such a dynamic teaching role.
“Stress and this disease do not go well together, and so I have to go,” said Vernon. Virtual learning was actually less of a stressor on her health, but the two years prior to the pandemic were “extremely challenging,” she said.
The road ahead
Vernon’s bucket list is not a long one, and her major goal is to become a full-time artist. Vernon has been designing jewelry for 25 years and has been a painter her entire life. She has her own website where she features and sells her art, and it’s also displayed at the Sawmill River Arts gallery in Montague.
“Being a teacher is like owning a restaurant,” she joked. “You never stop thinking about it. On the last day of school, I’m thinking and planning for the first day of school.” She said she looks forward to, “channeling that same amount of creative energy into my art.”
Vernon’s departure will be an incredibly bittersweet one. She brings so much joy to her students and colleagues alike.
Senior Mckenzie Fitz will miss her. “She radiates so much good energy that lifts all around her,” Fitz said. “I love her so much and her dance classes have changed my life forever.”
Choral Director Todd Fruth said his favorite memory of Vernon is, “hearing her laugh during department meetings.”
“She has also inspired me to reconsider how to plan choir concerts in the future,” he said.
When asked what she will miss most about ARHS, she said she will miss her students the most.
“Students have always helped me rise to the best expression of myself,” said Vernon. “There’s something so selfless about teaching. You can’t do it for you; it’s not about you. I feel like I’ll miss that opportunity to just show up for others by doing something I absolutely adore, which is dancing.”