Biloxi dance teacher dares students to dream

by Rebecca Powers - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - As Kelli's Steps School of Dance celebrates 30 years, Kelli Dickens is now teaching second, even third generations. Many of her students and their parents say she is their South Mississippi Hero.

Shayna Steele said, "I feel like if you follow your dreams, it will happen and I really was a big dreamer."

Dreaming brought Shayna Steele all the way from Biloxi to Broadway. Now a shining star on stage and the big screen, she owes a lot of that "dare to dream" attitude to former dance teacher Kelli Dickens.

Shayna Steele said, "She was a mentor and a mother figure to all of us girls, she was really there for us, she was so supportive, she instilled a lot of confidence in us."

"She treats me and other people like we're the only one dancing," a 6-year-old student said. "She makes me feel special, like a mom."

And like a mom, Miss Kelli keeps them all dancing even if they can't afford tuition. Right after the storm, she gave scholarships to 250 children.

"Some of those kids that are professional now were some of my scholarship kids," Kelli said.

Former student Vickie Palmer went on to become a professional dancer. As a restless teen, she turned to her second mother, Kelli for guidance.

"I said okay, I want to travel the world and dance while doing it and she said, 'Yep, okay, let's do it,'" Palmer remembers. "So shortly after that she got me involved with the casinos and dancing and I've been traveling ever since."

To be a part of Kelli's 30th year, Vickie returned from New Zealand with her baby girl. She said she will never forget who made it all possible.

"She has made my dreams come true. So that's Kelli, that's what she does," Palmer said.

Chad Edwards is a parent of three young dancers, and said Kelli not only sends her students out into the world, she brings culture home to them.

"Special choreographers and teachers that come to visit, that the kids in south Mississippi aren't exposed to at a regular dance studio," Edwards said.

"I will do anything for them," Dickens said. "If it is in my means, I will do it."

During her career, she's lost 12 students, including sisters Carley and Brittany Jordan. They were among the eight Mercy Cross students killed in a car accident in 2006. They were so close to Miss Kelli, the girls' mother asked her to dress them for their funerals.

"I knew exactly what Carley wanted to look like, what color she wanted to wear. And as far as Brittany, I know how she liked her eyes. And so when I did that it was like my moment with them," Dickens remembers.

In her 30 years, she feels honored to continue to be such a big part of so many young, amazing lives.

"I have great passion for my kids and I know when they walk out that door, that's not the last time I'll do something for them," Dickens said.

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