Shirley Clements retires from teaching with hip hop energy

by Janet Nicol

Shirley Clements, a dance and physical education teacher at North Surrey Secondary school, was about to close the door on her 25-year teaching career when she prepared 40 students for Outbreak, an annual dance competition.

“I thought, ‘this time I’m going to dance,’” Clements says in an interview. She never dreamed more doors would open-including an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’s television show with 12 of her top students.

“The experience on Ellen was surreal,” she says. “But then, my life has been full of serendipity.”

Clad in a red jacket with sequins and track pants, Clements and her students moved to Bruno Mar’s “Uptown Funk” in a fast-paced hip-hop break-dance routine. Clements’s energy was infectious. She even threw in a high kick and performed a double spin-on her head.

Surrey’s student dance competition, which now boasts more than 750 participants, was created 19 years ago by Clements, after she and other teachers successfully expanded the district’s program. Money from admission tickets has gone toward a $5000 scholarship as well as the purchase of “on loan” tap shoes for students.

Clements, who retires this October 31, teaches beginner, intermediate, and advanced dance courses, all electives. She also teaches an “elite” student group during “x” block.

“You can feel the electricity in the audience,” Clement says about the dance competition where she made her mark last January. Captured on video, one of her former students uploaded the clip to “Ellen Tube”-the official web site of Ellen DeGeneres.

“Students were coming up to me and saying, ‘did you know you are on Ellen Tube?’”, Clements says. The school principal approached her too. “He asked me if he could tweet it out.”

After thousands of hits, the video got Ellen’s attention and in June she invited Clements and twelve students to appear on her show. Clements says they practised all summer. Their hard work paid off when they travelled to Los Angeles in September and gave a great “repeat” performance on Ellen’s show.

“They are my love and they are part of my heart,” Clements told Ellen about her students. “They work their butts off and they show me love and respect, and they’re the nicest kids on the planet. I couldn’t ask for more wonderful students to be here today.”

The trip also included a visit to the Millennium dance studio, among other tourist destinations.

“I gave them an hour to shop in the mall on the final day,” Clements says. “My students are all shoe fanatics. They bought $180 shoes. They like to trade their shoes with each other too.”

Ellen presented Clements with a $10,000 cheque from Shutterfly. Clements says she plans to set up a dance studio for youth in San Pancho, Mexico, where she and her husband own a second home. She hopes the studio will also host cultural exchanges between local youth and students she’ll invite from Canada.

Dancing since she was a child, Clements trained in ballet and “character” dancing-everything from flamingo to jazz. She keeps in shape by dancing three hours a day, often alongside students as she shows them steps. Clements also choreographs her students’ routines but says she is open to students’ ideas.

I collaborate with my students,” she says. “The kids will say, ‘let’s try this.’”

Students also help choose the music. In the rap world of harsh street slang, Clements tries to be vigilant, editing out inappropriate words. “There’s no swear words allowed in the music at the school competitions,” Clements says. “It’s a family affair.”

Clements will retire with the assurance that her dance courses will continue as a younger teacher takes her place. She appreciates the value of the program in public schools, providing a creative outlet for youth. “There are students who can’t take dance outside of school,” she also observes. “It’s expensive.”

Some of her former students have become dance teachers, providing another satisfying legacy. Her students have also used their acquired talent to entertain on board cruise ships, in music videos, and at dance competitions, including the popular TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Though Clements has two grown children, her students are like family too-and she will miss them. “They call me Nana C,” Clements says. “I love the kids.”

Reprinted from BC Teacher magazine, November-December 2015 issue.

Check out the video of Shirley dancing with her students –

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