By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Carleigh Jones is a mover and a shaker. Literally.
At first blush, Jones, 16, looks like a typical high school sophomore, but when she hits the dance floor, something changes. Like Clark Kent ditching his glasses for a red cape, her physicality becomes more assured, more confident, as she moves – and shakes – with the balance and poise of a dancer far beyond her years.
Jones is one of many dancers at the Metropolitan School for the Arts, an art school located in the Fairfax County part of Alexandria, but she has become a leader on the floor due to her skill, work ethic and drive. Since she started dancing at MSA at 3 years old, Jones has never looked back. In the 13 years she’s been dancing, Jones said she has found not only a passion and creative outlet but a network of lifelong friends that has given her the confidence to take center stage.
“It sounds so cliché, but it really is just the escape from the outside reality of harsh life,” Jones said. “Dancing, especially around such an amazing group of people and the friendships I’ve made – I’ve grown up with all of these girls – we’re just all so supportive of each other. And it’s just that support system that makes it so easy to come back and so easy to dance and come do what we all love to do.”
Stylistically, Jones has embraced the full spectrum of dance. Musical theater, tap, jazz, contemporary ballet and hip hop: She is capable and willing to learn from different styles, something MSA offers her the opportunity to do. Although Jones admitted she enjoys more contemporary forms of dance like hip hop and jazz – “That just matches my personality more I feel,” she said – she acknowledged that learning classic styles, such as ballet, is necessary for any dancer.
“It’s so important to stay in ballet class because that’s what brings the technique into the jazz class,” Jones said.
Improvement in dance is a game of slow, steady gains. It’s as much about listening to the body and knowing when to push beyond reasonable limits as it is about learning choreography.
“The body is the instrument of dance, and it’s so important to keep it healthy and happy, and stretching outside of class and pushing yourself to an appropriate limit is very important,” Jones said. “That’s how you get better, but at the same time, pushing yourself too much could ultimately lead to an injury and you could be out for six weeks. So, it’s important to know your body and listen to it.”
Through 13 years of dancing at MSA, Jones has finetuned her instrument, and it shows. During one Saturday morning music theater dance class, Jones led her fellow students through an 80s-themed routine. Strutting and sliding her way across the dance floor, Jones executed the routine flawlessly, while finding moments to improvise and add to the routine, molding it into something dynamic and new.
“She’s so respected because she just knows everything. She remembers everything. She’s been like that her whole life,” Sarah Hart, a co-executive director and teacher at MSA, said.
But Jones has not always been the confident dancer she is today, according to Hart. Like many teenagers, Jones’ self-confidence came with time – and plenty of pirouettes.
“A lot of times you find dancers are type A personalities because they’re so structured from the very beginning. They’re very disciplined. A lot of times with Carleigh, I’m like, ‘Just trust what you’re doing, and enjoy it a bit more,’” Hart said.
Drive has never been an issue for Jones. MSA has three different dance groups in which students can perform: the hip hop, jazz and commercial dance-focused iMpulse, the Metropolitan Youth Tap Ensemble and the Metropolitan Youth Ballet. Jones dances in two out of three, iMpulse and MYTE, which requires a lot of work during MSA’s springthemed Company Project.
Throughout the year, MSA puts on several performances for parents and community members, including a few holiday shows and the Company Project and Spring Production in the spring. This year’s theme was “connection,” timed to coincide with a return to full in-person operations at the school after a tough adjustment during the pandemic.
For the students and teachers at MSA, the Company Project was an emotional performance after an unsettling few years for the school. Unlike many students, Jones has a small dance studio at her house, which proved to be a boon when MSA went all-virtual for more than a year.
Students would take classes on Zoom, and they returned to half capacity in the studios by September 2021. While painters, sculptors and even some musicians are used to being isolated during the creative process, the sudden separation Jones felt with her fellow dancers was immense. Suddenly, the support system that she had taken for granted was mostly no longer there.
It helped that this support system includes not only her dance family but her flesh and blood family. Jones’ mother is a production manager at MSA and her father helps build sets for performances. Meanwhile, Jones’ older sister, Danielle, has been dancing at MSA since she was 3 years old as well, and the two sisters have been dancing together for years.
Now a senior, Danielle will soon be graduating from the dance floor at MSA, leaving Jones on her own for the first time since she started at the school. Jones said dance, especially during the pandemic, has given her the opportunity to develop a relationship with her sister that she never would have had otherwise.
“She just inspires me to keep on dancing and keep remembering why I started and how much I love it,” Jones said. “I think that’s why I’ve stuck with it for so long – because she’s helped me spark that interest every year I come back.”
Scattered to their own personal bubbles, some students drifted away from MSA. According to Hart, enrollment at the school dropped from 850 students pre-pandemic to about 600 as of this year. For those who stuck around, dance and the arts became a lifeline at a time where many people felt directionless.
“Especially during the pandemic, for them to have something here that they could keep working toward was really helpful,” Hart said.
The Company Project was the first in-person performance Jones had performed in since the start of the pandemic, and it proved an emotional experience for everyone involved. The theme – connections – was not just a rose-tinted label slapped onto a performance. It informed every aspect of the show.
“The pure joy I felt just being up on that stage again was unmatched. It was amazing,” Jones said. “I’m so excited to do Spring Production and be on that stage again because it makes all the hard work, all the dedication, all the commitment that you’ve made, it just makes all of it worth it.”
The next year will be a notable one for Jones. Her older sister will be gone from the dance floor and, as a junior, her hopes for the future will start to take form. She already aims to join a dance team in college. Beyond that, she has dreamed of being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader ever since she met a former member of the squad at a dance intensive summer camp.
Regardless of where the future takes her, Jones knows dance will be at the center of her life. She still has more moves to make.