That’s the spirit

Published 1:48 pm Monday, March 6, 2017

UAB dance team coach Abby Southerland’s passion for dance is contagious

Wrriten by Grace Thornton

Photos by Dawn Harrison and Contributed 

Abby Southerland’s mom didn’t know a lot about dance when she let her daughter try it out as a 3-year-old — but she could certainly tell you a lot about it now, Southerland said.

Because once Southerland started dancing, she never stopped. Her life has circled around dance ever since.

“I was always a different person when I was on stage in front of an audience, and my mom could see that. She just encouraged me to keep going,” she said. “It was kind of my go-to and it just grew from there. I didn’t do sports — I just stuck with dance.”

These days, Southerland is the coach of the UAB Golden Girls dance team — the perfect place for her passion for dance to keep getting passed on, she said. “I’m getting to teach what I love to do to other people.”

She loves all dancing, but dance teams have had a special place in her heart since she joined the team in middle school, Southerland said. She kept on through her years at Spain Park High School, then went on to be captain of the University of Alabama’s dance team, the Crimson Cabaret.

“It was awesome,” she said of her years at UA, during which time she got to perform at Madison Square Garden and appear twice on ESPN College GameDay. “Alabama (football) won two national championships while I was there, and getting to be around that was amazing. It was like a dream come true getting to dance there. I loved every minute of it.”

Southerland said she’s a huge sports fan and has been an Alabama fan “since I was born,” so getting to be around athletics is one of her favorite parts of team dancing.

“It also teaches you about how to work within a group of people, and that’s a lesson that spills over into other areas of your life as well,” she said, noting that it’s helped her in everything from dance team competitions to her work at Dominick Feld Hyde, P.C. law firm.

After her time at UA, Southerland served as dance team coach for Spain Park High School for three years, then moved to UAB in 2016.

“Abby has been a wonderful addition to the UAB Spirit Program this year,” said Ryan Martin, UAB Spirit Coordinator and a cheer colleague of Southerland’s from UA. “I hired her because she truly has a passion for teaching others and for dance.”

The job, she said, takes a lot of time and energy, and if it’s not something you love, it will be hard to stay motivated.

“Abby is always coming to me with new ideas and ways to improve our presence at games and competitions, as well as improving the lives of our student athletes,” Martin said. “We are very lucky to have her here at UAB.”

Martin and Southerland are now working together to bring the “big school mentality” they had at UA to the dance team at UAB, Southerland said.

“We hope it will make our program grow and become a competitive team,” she said. “That’s our goal — to make it an ideal program that people want to come be a part of, to give it a competitive edge. We are excited about it, and we are super excited about football coming back next year.”

Southerland has been building programs wherever she’s gone, like at Jackie O’Neal School of Dance in Vestavia, where she’s built two hip-hop companies from the ground up.

“We have 50-plus kids in that program now,” she said.

Tammy Towns, owner of that dance school, said Southerland has practically grown up at the studio and that her impact on students today is something powerful.

“It’s been awesome for the studio having her back to teach and work with the hip hop companies,” Towns said. “She’s got so much charisma. She’s a unique individual, very creative, and she’s a strong role model for the younger people.”

Coaching and teaching has a special place in Southerland’s heart, and though she loves jazz and pom, hip-hop has always been her favorite, she said. “The energy and fun of it has always been my go-to.”