S he's lived a dancer's dream -- she's a member of Kilgore College's Rangerettes Forever, has danced with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and in the Macy's Parade, both in New York City, and has danced with Dirty Dancing 's Patrick Swayze. Yet for the past five years, Cindy Wilson has been teaching tap dance to more than 200 McDuffie County school children.
Every week during the school year, Mrs. Wilson visits the county's four elementary schools and the middle school to teach students in the after-school McDuffie Educational and Enrichment Programs (MEEPS).
Participation in the dance class does not cost the children any money, but they have to follow the rules, which include signing a contract, taking care of their tap shoes and bringing socks, keeping a certain grade average and consistent attendance. In addition to recitals and programs in each school, the students perform in Thomson for the Christmas parade, the Festival Off Main, Arts in the Alley and Car Show at the Depot.
"It's a big deal to them," Mrs. Wilson said. "They think they are like movie stars. I was skeptical at first; but, I've never seen such joy."
Evidently, the "big deal" feeling is mutual. "When I see them at Walmart or IGA, they'll stop and do a step for me," Mrs. Wilson said, her eyes brimming with tears. "It's just too emotional to know what a difference dance is making in their lives."
Mrs. Wilson has been dancing since she was 3-years-old, growing up in Houston, Tx. Drill team dancing is popular in Texas, and Mrs. Wilson's mother started a drill team at Mrs. Wilson's high school. Mrs. Wilson's dream was to attend Kilgore College and become a Rangerette, which she achieved. She took lessons from "the king of tap," Al Gilbert, and "had to sneak over to Patsy Swayze's studio" for lessons there.
"Being in a larger city, I had more opportunities," Mrs. Wilson said. "And I'm blessed that my parents gave me the opportunities to do all that."
One of her favorite memories is the time she, as a Kilgore Rangerette Forever member, was dancing at the San Francisco Stadium for a bowl game half-time show, and her sister was dancing in the same show as a current Rangerette.
"I turned around at one point in the routine, and my sister was dancing on the exact same yard line as I was," Mrs. Wilson said. "It was very emotional that two people could end up sharing something we didn't think we'd ever be able to do, because we were nine years apart."
Although she grew up in Houston and traveled around the country to dance, the first she heard of Thomson, Ga., was when her friend, Jeanie, married David Joesbury and moved to Thomson. It was at the Joesbury's wedding that she met her future husband, Bob Wilson. That was 35 years ago, and Mrs. Wilson has lived in Thomson ever since. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson raised their four children - one son and three daughters - in Thomson. Mrs. Wilson taught her daughters to dance, but they didn't inherit their mother's passion for it.
"They're Wilsons, so they are more into horses," she explained.
For years, Mrs. Wilson ran "Cindy's Dance Studio" in downtown Thomson, where she taught private lessons. In 2007, she took a group to Disney World to dance in the Christmas parade.
"I don't know who was most proud, (Bob) or me," she said. "He ran around and followed them along the parade route, taking pictures, like they were our own children."
Mr. Wilson wasn't the only proud parent from Thomson in Orlando that week.
"The parents tell me they will never forget seeing their child coming out of the chute on the float," she said.
Transitioning from teaching in a private studio with wall-to-wall mirrors to teaching in public school classrooms created a new challenge for the veteran tap teacher. Rather than standing in front of a mirror and demonstrating a routine, with the students imitating behind her, she had to learn to face the students in a room where they couldn't see themselves.
"I had to relearn the dance steps, so when they do their right foot, I had to be using my left," Mrs. Wilson said. "Plus, it's a challenge in the schools, because I never know what kind of room they will put us in. I don't know if I'm tapping on carpet or vinyl or wood."
Another challenge of traveling to different schools and classrooms was having portable music to dance with. When she first started teaching MEEPS, Mrs. Wilson was still using a record player.
"The children asked 'what is that,' and 'how does the music come out?'" she said with a laugh. "Now, it's on an iPod. It's been a learning experience for me. I had to have an assistant at first to help me get the music going. Now, I can do it myself."
And she continues to learn. Mrs. Wilson regularly attends classes, conventions and festivals in Houston, Atlanta and New York to learn dance techniques and participate in shows.
"I'm an old person. So, I have to keep learning the new moves and music," she said.
She continues to enrich the lives of the children in McDuffie County. Tap dance is her favorite, because as a teen, "I was told I smiled too much for ballet. So, I stuck with tap." She describes the tap she teaches in MEEPS to be "a pretty tap, not a stomp tap."
"Tap gives the children beat and a sense of rhythm. The idea is to get the children to learn a new craft, not what they see on TV," she said, adding that she's teaching a graded level tap, which is good if the students want to continue dancing in college.
Tap shoes were purchased with grant funds for the program. The same shoes are used each year, so the children are not allowed to take their shoes home. Sometimes, the shoes are the wrong size, and Mrs. Wilson said they wear two pairs of socks to make them fit better. Because the shoes are from a cheap line of tap shoes, they cannot withstand use outdoors on concrete or asphalt. So, the children wear sneakers when performing at the festivals in downtown Thomson.
When they get their shoes the first day of class, Mrs. Wilson has all the children sit in a circle on the floor. Each child has one minute of "free-dance" to perform whatever they choose in the middle of the circle.
"They love that, and they get so creative," she said. "They are so proud of their shoes."