Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Harrison Magazine.

When it comes to finding the perfect dance studio, parents can look no further than Marshall — the county’s seat — to help fulfill their little ones ballerina dreams.

From modern dance to jazz, tap, lyrical, hip-hop and ballet, Marshall offers a hub of studios that cater to the dance needs of girls ages 3 through teens.

“We have dance classes, starting at age 3,” said Brandi Melendez, owner of The Dance Bag studio, located on Marshall’s main street. We cater all the way through high school, so girls can come all the way through 18 years old.”

The Dance Bag, along with Martelly’s School of Ballet, are perhaps the longest running dance studios locally. Here’s a closer look at the two.

The Dance Bag

Going 16 dance seasons strong, The Dance Bag, located at 212 N. Washington Ave., was originally founded by dance instructor and former Mavette teacher Kristi McGeorge in 2006. Melendez became the second owner in December 2019, carrying on George’s legacy.

“I had never danced. My daughter has danced since she was [little]. I, of course, fell in love with the love of dance through her, and when Ms. Kristi decided that she needed to take a step back, there was really no one else that was stepping forward, and so we were coming to the end of the Dance Bag, and I decided to raise my hand and say I’ll do it,” she chuckled. “So that’s where we are now.”

For Melendez, it’s a joy to be able to offer an invaluable program to local children.

“It’s such a good feeling,” she beamed. “I love seeing the girls come in. I love the children. It’s a great feeling to be able to provide this for them.”

“I think that, for me, dance is so much more than just dancing,” Melendez continued. “It’s about the relationships and the bonds and the confidence that the girls build.”

At the Dance Bag, students can enroll in tap, ballet, jazz, contemporary, hip hop, novelty, pom and drill team prep classes.

Most special, is the Dream Dancers class for aspiring dancers with disabilities. The program was launched by McGeorge in 2017 and inspired by then-9-year-old Madie Michelle Skinner, who was the first Dream Dancer.

“The Dream Dancers is a very special (group),” said Melendez. “It’s a program for children with disabilities that we provide free of charge. Everything is paid for by the Dance Bag or by fundraisers, and we want it to continue to grow.”

Melendez is honored to have a team of trained dancers on her staff, which has grown tremendously from a staff of four last year to currently 12.

“Born to dance,” the instructors all boast a performance background, which they cultivated at a very young age. They enjoy sharing their passion for dance with their students.

“I love being able to teach little girls dance and see them love it as much as I loved it when I was their age,” said Hayley Woolen, a former Marshall Mavette who has been dancing since age 5.

“I’ve always loved dance,” she said. “And now I have a little one, here at the studio, so I love being able to see her dance as well.”

McKenzie Manning became a dancer at age 2 and continued through high school. Additionally, she taught classes at her dance studio her freshman year in Lindale, and performed on her high school dream team for two years. She came to ETBU and found out about The Dance Bag. It’s been a rewarding experience since.

“It’s just a really great environment,” said Manning. “I came here and they just kept giving me so many opportunities to start teaching my own class, help with the competition teams now as well as assist with drill team prep classes and jazz and ballet classes.”

At the Dance Bag, students don’t have to be already skilled to dance.

“Just have a love for it and want to learn,” said Melendez. “That’s really all they need. From there, we have to grow them.”

The Dance Bag was originally located on Wellington Street, but relocated to its current address two years ago to a much larger studio. The Dance Bag remains an active part of the community, participating in local festivals and parades. The competition teams in particular are often the featured performers. Additionally, The Dance Bag operates year-round, offering summer camps and clinics throughout the year that are open to the public.

The studio is now gearing up for its annual dance recital to be hosted at Memorial City Hall Performance Center. Those who want to learn more about the studio or see if their child would like to give dance a shot are encouraged to contact The Dance Bag.

“If anyone’s questioning whether their child wants to take dance, come and take a free class and check,” Jones said.

“Just give us a call and see where they would fit in,” Jones added. “There’s a spot for everybody here.”

Martelly’s School of Ballet

Now in its 28th year in Marshall, Martelly’s School of Ballet and Modern Dance, located at 2901 S. Washington Ave., continues to be a premier training ground for young dance protégés.

The dance studio offers dance for Pre-K through high school. As an intensive training ground, Director Coleen Martelly maintains a tight-knit enrollment to teach and hone skills.

“I’ve never had a large amount of children. I may have had the maximum about 40 to 45 girls. I’ve always had a small number compared to the other studios around her because mine is more, you have to train. It’s a process,” she explained.

The process trains dancers for various styles of dance, using ballet as the foundation.

“What I’d like to get across is the ballet is the base for all movement, so my dancers can do hip hop; they can do drill team; they can do anything,” shared Martelly.

“As a matter of fact, they excel because I’m teaching them how to dance — the proper way to dance. So they look different because they’re trained properly,” she said.

And when it comes to preserving the integrity of classical ballet technique and dance, the ballet studio doesn’t waver.

“I’m trying to remain classic and pure. I teach ladylike and purity,” said Martelly. “We don’t do bellies out. I’m grieving over where dance has trended. I’m grieving to see the youngsters, what they’re pushing on these little girls, making these little girls thinking that’s dance and that is not dance.”

“Having said that, I will not compromise,” she said. “If I just have two students, I will not compromise.”

Martelly began her dance training at age 17 as a student at Kilgore College, where she paved the way as the only African American dance student at the time. She trained at the University of North Texas as well.

At Kilgore, “I wasn’t a Rangerette. I didn’t have any dance background. I always wanted to be a Rangerette, but I didn’t do drill team here, so I didn’t have that opportunity, so I couldn’t compete in that,” she shared. “But I did train over in Kilgore. I broke ground. I was the only little Black girl that was a dance major over there.”

Martelly’s daughter, Symonne, followed in her mother’s footsteps, also as a trailblazer.

“My daughter was the first Black dancer at Longview Ballet Theatre,” said Martelly, noting how proud she is to have her share in her legacy.

Her daughter is currently training as a professional dancer at the Ballet West Academy