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story.lead_photo.caption Bryant High School dance coach Laura Wooten was inducted into the Bryant Athletic Hall of Honor on Saturday. Wooten has been the varsity coach for 22 years and has won 13 state championships. She plans to retire at the end of the school year because of health concerns. - Photo by Sam Pierce

The impact that Laura Wooten has left on the many girls who have come through her dance program at Bryant High School will be felt long after graduation.

“I feel like I have been able to reach so many students through coaching. I hope I have helped each and every one of my girls to be better dancers,” Wooten said.

“Overall, I hope that I have helped them learn about life in general,” she said. “I always tell my parents and girls, if they can stay a part of my team for three years, my hope is that whatever their next phase of life is, they are going to be prepared for it.

“That’s why I have continued to do it for all these years.”

Wooten, the dance coach at Bryant High School, was inducted into the Bryant Athletic Hall of Honor on Saturday. The event took place in the multimedia center in the main building at the high school.

“Laura is a one-of-a-kind spirit and dance coach,” Bryant Athletic Director Mike Lee said. “She is a pioneer in her profession.

“She was about excellence for her entire career. She was a slam dunk with regard to her being inducted into this year’s Hall of Honor class.”

Other inductees include Bob Goodloe, James Harris, Curtis Raspberry, Brad Goshien, O’Dell Lee and Kevin Nelson.

“It is definitely an honor, to think I am being inducted with other people that we have inducted in the past, but I really feel like it is more about my girls than it really is about me,” Wooten said prior to the event. “They are the ones who I feel should be honored. They have put in the hard work and dedication. They make me look good.

“I am so excited that this honor is being bestowed upon our team. I just really feel very privileged to be a part of something so special for all these years.”

Wooten said she wants to prepare her students for whatever they do after high school.

“Whether they go to college, get a job or be a mom — whatever that next phase is, I want them to learn those skills, and coaching has definitely helped me just be a part of those kids’ lives that the classroom doesn’t necessarily allow you to do,” she said.

Jennifer Smith, who graduated from Bryant in 2006, works for Medtronic as an account manager. She said if it wasn’t for the influence and mentoring of Wooten, she may not be where she is today.

“She made a major impact on my life,” Smith said. “I don’t have anything but good things to say.

“Whether she knows it or not, her influence has helped me make decisions. And there are countless other people, maybe not as intense, but it is really crazy how many people she has impacted.”

Smith said she also coaches the dance team at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

“Now I am helping build that program, so it has just come full circle now,” Smith said. “The little things she taught us have just affected me in so many different aspects of my life.”

Smith said both her parents worked for the Bryant School District, so she grew up looking up to Wooten, and it was never a question whether she would dance at Bryant.

“What people don’t realize is what she has done for the state of Arkansas and high school dance in general,” Smith said. “There were so many teams that competed back when I was on the team.

“It was basically Bryant dance for the longest time. Other schools have built their programs around what she has done and what she has built at Bryant. She is a winner.”

When Smith was on the Bryant dance team, it won three state dance championships, from 2003 to 2006.

“The level of competition now is just unreal,” she said. “We would win by a landslide back then because [Wooten] was just so ahead of the game in the state of Arkansas in the dance world.”

In Wooten’s 28 years at Bryant — 22 years as the varsity dance coach — she won 13 state championships, her last coming in 2012. She said that in her time, Bryant has never finished worse than third place in state.

“Probably the biggest reason we have been successful has been the consistency in the program,” Wooten said. “I took over for my high school coach, [Paula Calhoun], and I have had such dedicated young ladies and parents.

“I have had a great group of parents who are dedicated to seeing kids succeed. This whole community is so dedicated to athletes; it is just a great community and a great district to be part of.”

Wooten said the administration has been wonderful to support all of the school’s athletic groups.

“She just has a tremendous and genuine heart,” Lee said. “She is definitely Bryant through and through and has a deep love for this school and this town.

“She had so many opportunities to go other places, but it is another testament to her character. She always thought she had it better here at Bryant than anywhere else.”

Wooten said another reason why the dance team has been successful is its competing at the nationals in Orlando, Florida.

“To see the competition, nationwide, and the different levels out there, it inspires the girls,” Wooten said. “It lets them see just how good other people outside Little Rock are. I think that has truly made us better.

“In 2007, we made it straight to the finals in hip-hop. We got to skip the semifinals and ended up finishing eighth, which was the highest we have ever ranked in hip-hop. That was a pretty special memory.”

Wooten graduated from Bryant High School in 1982 and from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. She was one of the very first members of the junior high dance team.

“I don’t feel like I have done anything special,” Wooten said. “I just feel like I have given the time and energy, and [my girls] have put their heart and soul into it.

“I just want to get someone in here who will give them time and energy, like I have, because I am not anything special. My girls are the special ones, and I have had the privilege for the past 27 years to coach them.

“They have been a joy to me.”

Wooten has rheumatoid arthritis and has missed several days of work this year because of it. She said she is set to retire at the end of the school year.

“That is something that I have pretty mixed feelings about. I can get pretty emotional about it. I have had some health issues, and if that had not occurred, they would have probably had to run me off with a stick,” she said.

“This is my happy place. This is where I would have stayed forever,” Wooten said. “My body is telling me I need to quit, but my heart is definitely still here with my girls and the district.

“It is where I love being each and every day. The thought of not being here anymore is tough.”

Lee said replacing Wooten is going to be a daunting task.

“She is just a pioneer and a leader,” Lee said.

Rhonda Sanders, who currently serves on the Bryant School Board, said she has known Wooten ever since Sanders’ daughter, Samantha, was on the team from 2009 to 2011.

“Laura is absolutely the most dedicated person I have ever met,” Sanders said. “She loves dance. She gave her entire heart to it. It seems like every waking moment was about coaching dance.”

Sanders said she can’t believe Wooten is retiring.

“It has been her life,” Sanders said. “She treated the girls like they were her daughters. I have never seen a more positive person in my entire life.”

Sanders said that even though her daughter is no longer on the team, Sanders and Wooten have remained close. Sanders constantly helps out when she can and is always checking in on Wooten during competitions.

“I can safely tell you what my daughter learned from Laura,” Sanders said, “and being on the dance team has benefited her so much in college and so far in her career — that ability to work hard, work together as a team and recognize your own weakness and what you need to improve at.

“It has taught her so much. [Wooten] has truly affected so many lives in such a positive manner for these girls.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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