published Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Kennedy: Tiny dancer: Bradley County's face of gladness

Amy Headrick fixes the hair of her niece, Shelbee Jordan, 9, at the Chattanooga Dance and Performing Arts Center in East Brainerd. Shelbee recently won a national dance competition.
Amy Headrick fixes the hair of her niece, Shelbee Jordan, 9, at the Chattanooga Dance and Performing Arts Center in East Brainerd. Shelbee recently won a national dance competition.
Photo by John Rawlston.

Shelbee Jordan, 9, of Ocoee, Tenn., says there is a risky moment in her solo dance routine when she holds her breath.

"It's called a back chest-roll into a rocker with an ankle grab," she explained during an interview this week at the Chattanooga Dance and Performing Arts Center on East Brainerd Road. "Wanna see it?"

With that, Shelbee launched herself backward like a Slinky descending a staircase. Then she flew through a series of flips and rolls before settling into a yoga-like Bow pose.

If you try this at home please make sure you have paramedics standing by.

To compete at an elite level, young dancers must combine the acrobatic skills of a gymnast, the grace of a ballerina and the focus of a professional athlete. Shelbee has all three. She has accumulated 50 dance trophies and has appeared on an episode of the Lifetime television series "Dance Moms."

Earlier this month, the rising fifth-grader at Waterville Elementary School in Bradley County won a national championship in the Junior Super Soloist division at a big competition in Savannah, Ga. Her routine, called "Smile," was choreographed to the Barbra Streisand recording of the same name. Maybe you remember the song: "... Light up your face with gladness; Hide every trace of sadness ..."

So how did this 4-foot-tall, 60-pound dynamo become one of the best young dancers in America? The people around her say it was a combination of mental toughness and divine providence.

Shelbee was born two months premature. Her birth mother, a single mom, entrusted her sick child to a distant cousin when Shelbee was 6 months old.

"I think it was one of those situations where God put everyone at the right place at the right time," says Faye Swaggerty, Shelbee's guardian.

Swaggerty noticed early on that little Shelbee was often glued to the television watching ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

During the summer before Shelbee's kindergarten year, Swaggerty enrolled her at the Cleveland, Tenn., branch of the Dance and Performing Arts Center operated by Nisa Hooper, whose 100-plus students have won a wall full of national championship banners.

At first, Shelbee was awkward. "She couldn't even do a cartwheel," Swaggerty says. "I remember thinking: She's so pretty, maybe she can do beauty pageants instead."

But eventually Shelbee's flexibility and determination began to set her apart from other dancers.

"She's blessed with natural ability," says Caitlyn Lynn, one of Shelbee's instructors. "She can walk up to you, pull her leg up by her ear and carry on a conversation."

When she was 7 years old, Shelbee won her first trophy, a third-place award at a competition in Ringgold, Ga. She slept with it in the car on the way home and took it to bed with her that night.

A taste of winning lit a fire in Shelbee. Now she spends about 12 hours a week in studio rehearsals and practices endless hours at home.

There's a phrase so commonly used by competitive dancers that it has become an inside joke. Some of them even have T-shirts emblazoned with the all-purpose excuse: "I can't, I have dance."

"I want to dance on Broadway," Shelbee says confidently.

Shelbee's signature dance move is called a heel-stretch pirouette. She lifts one leg skyward while spinning three revolutions on the other foot. It's a ooh-and-aah moment in her routine -- a stunning example of flexibility and balance she executes with flawless technique.

Some of us struggle our entire lives to find flexibility and balance -- physically and mentally.

Finding a measure of both at age 9 gives Shelbee a huge leg up.

To suggest a human-interest story contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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