‘A family because of Lisa’

By on May 10, 2023

(Photo courtesy of Lisa Allen Heath)


Dare County Dance founder Lisa Allen Heath takes a bow

When Lisa Allen Heath announced on social media that she’d be retiring from Dare County Dance—a Dare County Parks and Recreation program that she established in 1986—hundreds of people responded instantly with well-wishes.

Many characterized “Miss Lisa,” as she is known, as a “legend” and shared memories and the impact of being or raising a “Dare County Dancer” under her tutelage. Heath teared up as she told the Voice that she didn’t anticipate that outpouring of love on her Facebook post.

“I knew people appreciated what I do, but I never, ever, ever expected the love that I’ve gotten,” she said. “And to have done something all my life that I enjoyed.” Heath shook her head and added emphatically, “There is nothing any more rewarding than for someone to tell you that you were their childhood memories.”

And that was the case for hundreds—likely thousands—of Dare County youth over the decades.

“Let’s be clear. There will never be enough words In the English language to describe the positive impact that Lisa has had on my life, [and] on Dare County Dancers’ lives,” said Kelly Caroon. Along with her sister and a close group of friends, she danced with the program her entire childhood through high school graduation.

Caroon recalled Heath as a phenomenal dancer, “always coming up with the most modern moves…being so hip.” But her influence wasn’t contained to class. Heath served as “a big sister” to the dancers—always ready with encouragement and an ear for their troubles, joys or teenage “drama.”

Framed group photos of girls and boys in their recital costumes from over the years adorn the walls of Heath’s office in the Lions Club building in Manteo and line one side of the hallway. The program serves ages three through high school, with classes in Manteo, Buxton and Kill Devil Hills. Heath has taught generations of some of the same families—and even a few grandchildren of her original students.

“It brings tears to my eyes…the generations of children that have been able to be graced by her intuitiveness, her ability to just make a song come to life with the body, with just motions of the body,” Caroon said. “She just is an amazing woman. She’s always just been very in touch with every person, every human being she’s ever come in contact with.”

Heath is a third-generation dance teacher who began learning the art form at the age of two in her mother Libby Allen’s Elizabeth City studio, the Libby Allen School of Dance. By the time she was 15, she was teaching and choreographing with her mother. Her mom had also grown-up learning dance from her mother, Elisabeth Hinson, who in 1924 founded one of the first dance schools in the Southeast and simultaneously trained an elite group of dancers called “The Carolina Girls,” who performed regionally.

Heath graduated from Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City in 1980 and moved to the Outer Banks, working for several local retail stores while continuing to teach part-time at her mom’s studio.

Prompted by her dad, who worked as director of Parks and Recreation in Elizabeth City, Heath said she approached the Dare County Parks and Recreation Department director to propose starting a dance program. At the time, she said only one private dance studio existed in the county.

“It’s kind of cool,” Heath said. “I…followed in both my parents’ footsteps.”

Heath has also taught adult ballroom dance classes alongside her mom, who also now lives in Dare County, and she hopes to do more of that after her retirement.

Dare County Parks and Rec hired Heath part-time initially, and she organized a 10-week dance program, which 70 students attended. “And then everybody wanted to keep doing it,” she recalled. By 1991, Heath had 160 students and was teaching ballet, jazz and tap four nights a week.

Dare County Dance reached 250 students at its peak, Heath said. Pointe, lyrical and hip-hop dance styles were added to the program repertoire over the years, so now classes are available in all six styles under several teachers.

In addition to recitals—usually one for Hatteras Island participants and one for students in the rest of the county—Dare County Dancers have participated annually in the Town of Manteo’s Christmas Parade in December and in Dare Days in June since the program’s inception.

Dare County Dance was the first such program established in North Carolina under the auspices of Parks and Recreation, according to Heath’s boss of 15 years, Tim White, who is public services director for Dare County.

“It’s the longest-running, plus the only one,” White said, at least as of several years ago, when he spoke to a state-level Parks and Recreation employee and learned there was no other such full-time or part-time program.

Lisa Allen Heath (center) with (left-right) her mother Libby Allen, granddaughters Jocelyn Libby (7) and Juliana (3), and her daughter Madison Jae Midgett.
Lisa Allen Heath (center) with a group of students in their recital costumes in 2017, many of whom continue to dance. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Allen Heath)
Lisa Allen Heath (left) smiles after a recital with Melanie Gonzalez, who danced with Dare County Dance from age 8 through her high school graduation.
(Photo courtesy of Lisa Allen Heath)
(Photo courtesy of Lisa Allen Heath)
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White praised Heath’s loving nature, positivity and work ethic. “She’s just a joy to have as an employee, and it’s going to be tough to fill her shoes because she’s such an upbeat person. And she’s built that program. She definitely has the hearts of the young ladies.”

Diane Gonzalez’s daughter Melanie danced with the program from age eight through her high school graduation. Heath was her first dance teacher and was instrumental in cultivating Melanie’s “love of dance and the fire [for it],” she told the Voice. Melanie went on to join the dance team at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

“Lisa’s always been loving and encouraging,” Gonzalez said. “She’s always had a smile on her face. Even when the kids messed up, she’d find a reason to laugh [and] never made them feel like they messed up. She’d always make sure every kid shined on the stage.”

Caroline Adams, who danced with the program for 10 years beginning at age three, agreed. “She told us that no matter what goes wrong, to keep dancing and smiling,” which was not only advice for dance but also for life, Adams noted.

Heath lives by that advice.  She makes light of situations, from wet ballet shoes to having a student break the ballet barre after Heath repeatedly warned her to stop hanging on it. Heath smiles even when she recalls teaching in what could be considered less-than-optimal locations—including in a trailer with no bathroom outside the now-demolished old Manteo Middle School. “Oh my gosh, I don’t know how many kids peed on me from carrying them in…it was so funny.”

Heath has always gone the extra mile to make sure the recital stage is exquisite. Her husband of almost 10 years, Aubrey Heath, has been creating all the stage scenery for the past decade’s shows, she noted.

She has two children from a previous marriage—Christian Cudworth, 26, and Madison Midgett, 32, who “loved the stage,” danced in Heath’s classes and also taught dance for a time. Midgett’s two girls, Jocelyn Libby and Juliana may become the fifth generation of dancers in the family.

Shannon Allen is one of Heath’s pupils-turned teachers. She taught middle and high school classes with Dare County Dance for over 20 years, stopping only because of a knee injury. She’d started taking Heath’s classes at age 12.

“It was too expensive for my family of five kids, and I was going to have to quit,” Allen told the Voice. “Lisa wouldn’t have it and let me be her assistant, even buying my shoes. Within a year, I was choreographing dances and by high school, Lisa got me a job.”

Heath will lead one final set of recitals and retire June 23, just shy of her Aug. 1 hiring date, which this year marks 37 years since she founded the program. “What’s kept me here for so many years is just seeing the joy they get with dance,” she said of her students.

Always forging community, Heath requests that people attend the upcoming recitals, which take place Saturday, May 13, at 1 p.m. and at 5 p.m. at First Flight High School in Kill Devil Hills or on Friday, June 2, at 6 p.m. at Cape Hatteras Secondary School in Buxton. This year’s recital theme is “Disco Fever,” and general admission is $5.

“There will never be a price that you could ever put on the accumulation of good memories, good advice and family that the Dare County Dancers became,” Caroon observed. “Dare County Dancers are a family because of Lisa.”

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    Lisa was remarkable in teaching her dance classes. I HAD THEE DAUGHTERS WHO TOOK DANCE FOR MNY YEARS; EMILY, KATHERINE, & CAROLINE. Lisa was always encouraging and upbeat. She must have a star in her crown for making young girls feel “special” and important. Dare County will certainly miss her talent and love for dance she instilled in her pupils. I helped backstage several years, dressing little girls, helping with makeup, etc. It was a joyful experience. Lisa, I join hundreds of others to thank you for your dedication and spirit. Carol Adams

    Wednesday, May 10 @ 6:09 pm
  • Glenn

    What a great story of a wonderful member of our community…positively impacted so many children. Wish her well in her retirement.

    Thursday, May 11 @ 9:41 am
  • Cara

    I took dance with Miss Lisa for 7 years. She had a big impact on a lot of us young dare county girls in the early 90s. All my friends took dance with her. Lots of fun and awards to be won at the Dare Days celebrations. I remember when her daughter was a tiny baby. And I can’t forget the excited feeling on recital nights 🙂 She really was like family. I’m so happy for her to retire.

    Thursday, May 11 @ 1:50 pm
  • Ted Midgett

    CONGRATULATIONS GOGO! Job well done lady! Enjoy your retirement if you get to it!

    Thursday, May 11 @ 6:14 pm