When dance teacher and choreographer Pat Shepherd was 16, she received quite a gift. She had studied dance under Beale Fletcher, a noted professional dancer and local instructor during the 1960s. When Fletcher wanted to establish a Hendersonville-based studio, he asked Shepherd to step in.
She spent her junior and senior years of high school running the dance school, teaching lessons, and guiding its direction. In 1971, Fletcher gave her the studio as a graduation gift, and Pat’s School of Dance was born.
Today, approximately 500 students take ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, and hip-hop lessons each year from Pat and her team of instructors. Preschool students learn the basics of movement; graduating seniors compete on a national level. Shepherd’s affinity for students of all ages is apparent in every class she teaches.
“My favorite things are my children that I teach here,” she says. “I love seeing my kids and miss them every summer.”
Pat’s School of Dance takes a break when school lets out each year, but that doesn’t mean that Shepherd’s creative expression lies fallow. Each September, she heads up the entertainment for the North Carolina Apple Festival, where she selects and coordinates the musical acts which perform throughout the weekend. The music runs a wide gamut, from bluegrass to gospel and Motown to country.
Most years, Shepherd’s students join the parade route to share their jazz and lyrical dance skills with the crowd. This year, several of the senior students were called away for jobs at Disney World or to attend college orientation, so the dance school will take a break from the parade.
Shepherd has every intention of featuring new students at next year’s festival, and in the meantime, she asks the crowd to jump in and show off their skills.
“You can dance in the streets and sing the songs that everyone knows,” she says, referring to the interactive atmosphere planned for this year’s festival.
Coordinating the entertainment for an event of this size and stature is no easy task, but Shepherd emphasizes the importance of supporting the region’s apple growers and the city’s culture.
“I’ve done it for the last 35 years, and I’ve done it so long it’s just my community,” she says.
For Andrea Logan-Womack, the Apple Festival is a yearly opportunity to catch up with her former teacher. She remembers marching through the parade as a child and feeling immensely proud to be one of Shepherd’s students.
“It was always a big deal to be part of Pat Shepherd’s dance company,” recalls Logan-Womack. “It was an honorable thing.”
Logan-Womack took lessons at Pat’s School of Dance in the late 1970s and continued through her high-school graduation in the early 1990s. She remembers the “passion and drive” that made Shepherd such an impressive teacher.
For a self-described “shy girl” like Logan-Womack, dancing at Shepherd’s school gave her the confidence to persevere through other challenges in her life.
“Being in her studio was my true home,” she says. “It was my one place where I felt joy and a sense of excitement and hopefulness.”
Logan-Womack now teaches hip-hop and tap at Elevate Life and Art, an organization in Asheville that offers after-school programs and all-ages classes in a wide array of creative disciplines. In recent years, hip-hop has emerged as a viable addition to many dance studios.
Pat’s School of Dance has kept up with changing times by going beyond ballet and jazz. In addition to lyrical — a term for contemporary, interpretive dance that fuses numerous styles — she offers classes specifically for boys. Shepherd and her staff take teaching workshops around the country in an effort to stay current and innovative. She says she’s seen a great response from young dancers who are eager to learn new techniques.
In recent decades, the school has grown into a training ground for young dancers destined for the national stage. Past students have gone on to perform with major companies across the country, danced in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades, and appeared on Broadway. Several students were featured in the hit 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, filmed at Lake Lure.
“She taught us far more than dance,” remembers Logan-Womack. “She taught us discipline and a respect — not just for each other, but for ourselves”
Logan-Womack has toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It’s a journey that brought her across the country, but she says it all started with Pat’s School of Dance in Hendersonville.
Shepherd is modest when describing her own impact on the local community, preferring to place the praise on the shoulders of her students.
“I guess our students just dream big,” she says. “That’s what we promote at the studio: you can do anything you want to do; just follow your dream.”
Visit patsschoolofdance.com for class schedules and more information.