LAURINBURG — Though teenagers are rarely short of inventive ways to earn money, few at age 68 can say they are still operating the business that put them through college.
A native of the Mason’s Cross area, Karen Jenkins — née Gibson — began taking dance lessons at the age of 5 in McColl, S.C., learning in tandem with a cousin and following teacher Peggy Wright from McColl to Red Springs, Raeford, and finally Laurinburg.
“Back then there weren’t dance teachers on every corner,” she said.
A relatively short 11 years after her dancing career began, Jenkins stepped into the role of instructor while still a junior at Laurinburg High School, filling a vacancy in Bennettsville, S.C. by teaching 10 pupils.
She would pick up students in Hamlet and Laurinburg before graduating from Pembroke State University, where she transferred after spending her freshman year at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C. and exchanged a major in musical theater for history and English.
In 1962, she founded Laurinburg’s Karen Gibson School of Dance.
Though she married Charles Jenkins, now a professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, in 1968, Jenkins never changed any of the signs above her schools over the years to reflect her married name.
“I could have changed it,” she said, “but there was already a Gentry school here in town and I thought Jenkins and Gentry would be confusing.”
Now in her 53rd year of teaching dance, Jenkins continues to teach tap, jazz, pointe, and lyrical at her Laurinburg school. Jenkins has also taught students in Red Springs for more than 30 years, and continues to travel there weekly to instruct at Flora MacDonald Academy.
Her vocation has been a logical progression from an innate affinity for one of the few activities available to young women of her generation.
“There weren’t a lot of things to do back then,” she said. “It was what I did. It was a hobby and it became part of my life.”
Though tap was her specialty as a student and performer, her true love is for ballet, which she describes as “the basis of all” dancing and which she teaches her students beginning at the age of four or five. Many of those students remain with her until they graduate from high school, assisting as student teachers in their teenage years by helping younger pupils stretch and learn new steps.
Jenkins’ longtime students credit her with instilling in them a sense of perseverance and discipline in the face of difficult tasks. Though she strives to teach fundamental ballet terms such as piqué, plié, and glissade, “can’t” is not a vocabulary word Jenkins permits in her studio.
“There was one dance I was doing and I was having so much trouble with it and I was getting frustrated,” Serina Hammonds, 17, recalled. “I said I can’t do it Ms. Karen, I just can’t do it and she looked at me and said don’t ever say you can’t do something, because you can.”
As her students develop in the concentration, determination, discipline, and self-confidence that Jenkins strives to teach them, she notices her more introverted students come out of their shells as they learn their role and their value as part of a team.
“Some children who aren’t very disciplined, but in dancing you have to be,” she said. “Dancing as a group, you’re depending on everybody else and you’re trying to do everything alike and everybody’s depending on you.”
For many of Jenkins’ students, their dance classmates are also their most familiar friends.
“My closest friends are the girls that I’ve danced with my entire life,” said Brianna Stanley, who has danced with Jenkins for 15 years. “I’m really shy and dancing in front of people has made me open up.”
Though her students put on a recital annually, Jenkins does not push students to compete, preferring that they cultivate diverse interests rather than devote themselves single-mindedly to dance. She herself never undertook a serious performing career. However, several of her sudents, including former Complexions Contemporary Ballet of New York, N.Y. principal dancer Jeffrey Polston, have taken up dancing as a profession, both as performers and teachers.
“I’d rather my kids diversify, and you can’t play soccer and cheer (as a competitive dancer), you have to take dance three or four times a week,” she said.
When students lace up their dancing shoes and enter Jenkins’ Main Street studio, schoolwork, high school drama, and other pressures recede into the background as the sound of music and the call to dance take over.
“Whenever I’m dancing I don’t really think about other things,” said 16-year-old McKensi Norton. “I just focus on my dance so I get away from everything for at least a coupe of hours.”
She added that Jenkins at times exudes more belief in her students than they have in themselves.
“She never loses her cool and she will always help you no matter how long it’s taking you to get something,” Norton said. “She never gives up.”
Jenkins attributes a continued level of popular interest in dancing to television programming such as “So You Think You Can Dance?” and “Dancing With the Stars,” which showcase the glamor that can come along with the art.
“They see it on TV and they want to do it too,” she said. “Once they get here, it’s up to me to make it interesting enough to make them want to continue.”
And, after half a century of teaching, Jenkins has not ruled out the possibility that she will celebrate a 60th anniversary recital in another few years.
“I used to say that when I start teaching the grandchildren of the children I taught, it’s time to quit,” she said. “About 10 years ago I realized I was teaching grandchildren and I went ‘Oh my gosh.’ But I haven’t quit yet. And I don’t have any plans to.”
“As long as I have students that want to learn and my knees will work, I’ll probably continue.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 17. Follow her on Twitter @emkaylbg.