Jenna Wells knew she wanted to be a high school dance teacher her senior year of high school.
“Ever since then it has been stuck in my brain,” she said.
The story of Wells becoming interested in dance can be traced back to the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics and gymnast Carly Patterson.
She remembers sitting in her new home in Winston-Salem watching the Olympics. Her family had just moved there. Wells knew to tune in to see the young American gymnast because of a magazine article she read in class.
It was already monumental that Patterson made it to the finals in the floor routine. It was an even bigger accomplishment when she stuck that last landing and became an Olympic Gold Medalist. Inspired by Patterson’s quest and success for gold, Wells launched her gymnastics career.
After the torch started its journey from Athens to Beijing, China, the American gymnasts did a nationwide tour in the U.S. One of their stops was the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem. Wells still has her Carly Patterson T-shirt from the tour.
“Seeing it live was more motivating than anything,” Wells said. “To see her right in front of me, that was just amazing. When you see it in person it is completely different from what you would expect.”
From there, she was hooked.
Wells was born in East Point, Ga., on Jan. 27, 1995. In 2001, the family relocated to Louisiana so her father could get his doctorate at Louisiana State University. Through that time she participated in many different sports: soccer, cheerleading, tennis, swimming, tap dance, volleyball … the list goes on. After her father finished his doctorate the family moved to North Carolina.
“I had tried a million sports before but could not find one that I liked that much,” Wells said. “When I tried gymnastics I fell in love with it.”
Watching Carly Patterson inspired Wells to give gymnastics a try in the fourth grade. She traveled around North Carolina for six years going to different gymnastic meets.
In the world of gymnastics, there are 10 levels. Each level is based upon the number of certain techniques a gymnast can do. Wells started competing at level three and moved up a level every year except level five, which she stayed in for two years. At the end of each season, competitors who did the best that year were invited to the statewide competition. Wells went twice and won first place in the uneven bars at level four one year and second place on the balance beam the next year.
Yet by her freshman year of high school, her body was already feeling the tolls of the sport. She could feel it in her back, ankles and she was too “tall,” thus ending her gymnastics career. However she still looks back on her days of gymnastics and smiles.
Ronald W. Reagan High School in Winston-Salem, N.C. happened to be the perfect place for Wells to grow as a dancer. It would take time, dedication and a little push.
She was shy as a freshman in high school. All she wanted to do was go to school and go home, but Jenna’s mother wanted to see her daughter be social.
“She gave me a choice to either try out for the dance team or try out for cheerleading,” Wells said. “I chose dance because I thought I would have no chance of making it.”
Besides taking tap dance when she was 3 years old, Wells had no experience with dance. Ironically the sport she thought she would fail in is now one of her loves. To supplement dance classes at the high school and prepare for the dance team tryouts in the spring, her mother enrolled her in private dance lessons at a studio in town.
She wanted her daughter to succeed and she knew she would with her gymnastics background, but it would take time.
The private lessons were not enough to elevate Wells to the level she needed to make the dance team her freshman year. There was still the end-of-the-year recital at her studio, something Wells did not want to do. However, friendly peer pressure from her fellow dance studio friends put her in the recital.
“I did it and I loved it,” Wells said. “I loved it, so I decided to keep taking the classes.”
All the hard work started to pay. She liked the gratification that performing gave her. “I really like the adrenaline rush you get through that,” Wells added.
Perseverance and a passion for dance helped her to push even harder the next year. She was now performing for the school concerts and for the private studio. It was time to give the school dance team another shot in the spring of her sophomore year. Of the 50 girls who tried out, 25 made it, and Wells was a part of that accepted group.
“All throughout high school I liked dance. But being on the team helped me because I did it every day,” Wells said. “It was drilled into me.”
Despite being bullied by the senior members of the dance team, Wells kept going. In her senior year, she grew the most as a dancer and choreographer. She stopped going to the studio, because of a scheduling conflict, and dove headfirst into the school dance team, immersing herself completely into it.
For Wells, dance came naturally because of her early days in gymnastics.
“Gymnastics really requires you to understand your body,” Wells said. “You want to have straight legs, straight arms and pointed toes. And that’s the exact same with dance. You need all those technique things. Both things are very nitpicky about how you look, how your body moves basically.”
As a junior in high school, the first time Wells drove though Appalachian State she was not impressed by the campus. The second time she visited ASU was the winter of her senior year of high school. She loved the atmosphere, the attitude of the students on campus and the mountains.
Just in the twilight of her freshman year of college, Wells already has plans for the future. She is a member of the dance group Momentum, the undecided major bounces between the prospect of being a dance major or a graphic design major. Regardless of how college goes Wells knows exactly what she wants to be — a high school dance teacher. But, while she is still in college she is going to perform as much as she possibly can and keep growing as a dancer, performer and quasi-teacher.
“Dance-wise, if you want to be a performer, you need the technique and experience,” Wells said. “If you want to be a teacher, like me, you need to know how to show others in multiple ways. Being a teacher you need to know how to work with people and show them the different side of things.”
She wants to teach and to inspire, because Wells cannot see herself doing anything else for the rest of her life. “I don’t mind starting somewhere smaller and moving my way up,” Wells added.
Gymnastics may have been her first love, but dance has taken her this far. She sees no reason to stop now.
“It’s about feeling the movement and the expression,” Wells said.