Hendrix College could have looked the world over and not found a better fit for its dance coach than Donna Franks — a 58-year-old Conway grandmother.
Franks, who grew up in Conway, graduated from the University of Central Arkansas with a degree in physical education/health education and has been teaching dance for 44 years, began her new duties in mid-August.
Her husband, Roger, saw online that the position was open and encouraged his wife to apply. She met with Hendrix officials about the first of August.
“It was very quick,” Franks said. “I have loved the facility at Hendrix (the Wellness and Athletic Center) and the faculty. They have been so wonderful to me.”
Sometimes such things seem meant to be.
Franks, the youngest of three daughters of the late Johnnie Sue and D.W. Coffman, graduated from Conway High in 1975 and UCA in ’79. At 14, she started teaching at Joel’s House of Dance in Little Rock.
“I grew up dancing, and after graduating from high school I studied professionally,” Franks said. “But I realized, because I’d started teaching at 14, that I loved teaching and working with children more than doing a professional career, so I’ve been teaching ever since.”
While at UCA, she taught dance to children in Morrilton; when her first husband worked in Washington, D.C., for a couple of years, she taught there. When the couple moved to northwest Arkansas, she had Donna’s School of Dance in Prairie Grove, Decatur and Lincoln.
When the family moved to Searcy in 1983, she opened Gym Dancers and had that business for 30 years.
How many students has she taught throughout her career?
“I can’t even tell you,” she said, chuckling. “I’ll be in Little Rock or Fayetteville and hear someone say, ‘Ms. Donna!’ I’ve been doing it a long time. I can’t even imagine the numbers, probably 50 or more every year from age 14 to 58.
“That makes me really sound old.”
It seems, though, that she is just what Hendrix needed.
“We are thrilled to have Donna as our new dance coach,” said Amy Weaver, director of athletics at Hendrix. “She brings with her a wealth of experience and knowledge, which we anticipate will take our dance team to the next level. In addition, Donna is a wonderful person and will be a great addition to our department.”
At Hendrix, Franks recently oversaw tryouts for the 2015-16 dance squad. She goes in for practice three days a week, when she teaches routines and choreographs sideline performances, among other things. She also attends faculty meetings and is with the team for all in-town football and basketball games.
Hendrix held its home football opener at Young-Wise Memorial Stadium on Saturday, when the Warriors played host to Lyon College.
Coach Buck Buchanan, in his third season of the revival of Hendrix football following a 52-year hiatus, knows how important spirit squads are to intercollegiate athletics, quoting Rudyard Kipling: “The strength of the pack is the wolf; the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
“I love the fact that we can provide opportunities for people to do what they love,” he said. “It is a bonus that they provide an added level of spirit and excitement for the college, our teams and especially our fans.
“I think (spirit squads) deserve a lot more credit than they get. They put a tremendous amount of time and effort into practice just like our teams do, and most of the time they are doing it to help us all be better. I know we really appreciate all they do. It really matters to the athletes that people other than themselves care. So I don’t want our guys to ever take for granted the signs that the cheer and dance team put in the locker room, or the occasional cookies after Friday walk-throughs, or the band we had at the Bacone game last year, etc.
“All of that matters and is very much appreciated.”
Franks said the dance team is in its 10th year at Hendrix.
“It provides an opportunity for the girls to participate in a sisterhood organization,” she said. “They bond and have a sense of belonging.”
Dance also brought Franks her husband, Roger; the couple has been married for 12 years. Through her Gym Dancers business, she was a volunteer coach for the dance team at Searcy High School, where Roger was the boys basketball coach.
“We met through his coaching and my girls,” she said.
Roger Franks is now in his eighth season as boys basketball coach at Pulaski Academy. Donna Franks is in her seventh year as an after-school instructor for children ages 3 through fourth grade — teaching, of course, dance, gymnastics and cheerleading. Her grandson, Wyatt Taylor, 7, studies gymnastics under her; granddaughter Ella Taylor, 3, does dance and gymnastics.
Her daughters Ashley Taylor, 33, of Little Rock, and Natalie Aydelott, 31, of Las Vegas, of course, grew up dancing. They were both on the Razorback pom squad during their time at the University of Arkansas, including one year together.
“That was very exciting, to go watch all the football and basketball games,” Franks said.
Her older sisters, Cheryl Bruns of Conway and Debra Atchison of Hot Springs Village, also danced through high school.
A few years ago, Franks and her husband moved to Conway to redo the family home where she had grown up in the Grandview Heights neighborhood.
“We’re living there and we love it,” she said.
With her responsibilities at PA, the house renovation and some part-time work on camps for Varsity Spirit (according to its website, “the global leader in cheerleading and dance teams”), as well as being a grandmother, she really wasn’t looking for another project. But the Hendrix opportunity was too good to pass up.
“This lets me do a little avenue like that,” she said. “We do not do anything competitive. It’s strictly for school spirit and to promote Hendrix.”
So what can a grandmother teach college students about dance?
“This is so funny,” Franks said. “I taught them the routine they performed, and they said, ‘Let’s videotape you for YouTube.’ I still perform what they do — leaps and turns. I’m still performing kicks. When you dance your whole life, it just comes natural to you.
“It keeps you young.”