There was pride in Lee Nolting’s eyes as she stood off to the side watching her COCAdance company students rehearsing a performance being taught by Antonio Douthit-Boyd, a principal member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City and one of Nolting’s own former students at COCA (Center of Creative Arts) in St. Louis.

“She’s just in eighth grade,” said Nolting, who grew up in Washington the daughter of Agnes and Wayne Nolting, pointing out one poised young dancer.

As she singled out others, ticking off their many achievements, Nolting couldn’t hide her enthusiasm for her students. They, and all who came before them, are her kids.

Nolting, who worked as a professional dancer and began teaching dance when she was just 12 years old, using her parents’ basement in Washington as a studio, was honored last week with the Excellence in the Arts Award at the Arts and Education Council’s 2014 St. Louis Arts Awards. The banquet was held Monday evening, Jan. 20, at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis.

Nolting has previously won the The Grand Center Visionary Award for Educator of the Year in 2010, as well as a certificate from Advancement in the Arts out of Miami, Fla., when one of her former students who was competing in choreography identified Nolting as the teacher who had most inspired him.

Nolting, or “Miss Lee” as her students know her, started the dance program at COCA in 1987 and went on to develop a pre-professional program for high-level training, the Talent Identified Program (TIP) that brought dancers from disadvantaged neighborhoods to train at COCA, as well as the COCAdance company.

She helped establish a scholarship program for students to take classes and train at COCA, even picked them up for classes and made sure they had enough to eat.

‘It Never Becomes Old’

Nolting’s career in dance has included any number of high points — working in the adult chorus at age 15 at The Muny, touring the country with “Music Man” and “Brigadoon,” singing and dancing with Dean Martin’s “Golddiggers” when she was 17, just to name a few. But none have felt any more successful to her than teaching.

Nolting has had dozens of students, too many to count really, who have gone on to Broadway and beyond. In fact, Nolting’s former executive director at COCA, Stephanie Riven, sent her to New York a couple of years ago just so she could catch up with her former students who were working there.

“I went to at least one or two shows every day,” said Nolting.

She saw former student Hettie Barnhill in “Fela,” about an activist in Africa who has nine wives. She recently just closed in “Spiderman” on Broadway, Nolting commented.

She saw former students Rodney Hamilton in “Ballet Hispanico”; Jessica Taylor, who has her own company called Damage Dance; Lesley Garrison with the Morris Dance Group at Brooklyn Academy of Music; and Antonio Douthit-Boyd with Alvin Ailey.

Another former student, Erin Moore, who was with Philadanco, a modern company in Philadelphia, is now one of the Onyx girls on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and also performing on Broadway in “After Midnight.”

Just thinking about all of the students she’s had who have gone on to find such success gives Nolting goosebumps.

“It never becomes old,” she said. “It’s each individual, wanting them to find their journey and their successes.

“We tell them to be the best they can be. Not to compete with other people, but compete with yourself. Every time you come into class, you want to see if you can do something a little better, if you can turn out a little bit more, if your leg can get a little bit higher, as opposed to paying attention to someone else who you think you’ll never dance like.”

‘Always Watching the Corrections’

Thinking back to her own dance classes, Nolting said that is where she learned the art of teaching.

“When I was taking, I was always watching the corrections that the teacher was making and then it got to be a game for me to see if I could figure out what he was going to say before he said it, which I think really instilled the teaching desire in me.”

Nolting opened her own studio, Lee’s School of Dance, at age 12 after her teacher, Penny Biller of Union, became pregnant.

“So she asked me to come in and assist her with classes, and when she went to deliver the baby, I had to teach her classes for her,” Nolting recalled. “When she came back, parents were so ecstatic about my teaching, that she said I had to start some of my own classes. So I started teaching in my parents’ basement.

“I was 12, and some of the students were close to my age. My mother was like, you have to be the adult, so I had to write out the notes and talk to the parents and collect the money.

“I loved it,” said Nolting with a broad smile, “and the more I did it, my whole thing was how good could I get my students to be in the recital because we (she and Biller) would join our classes together for the recital.”

It was around this time that Biller told Nolting she had taught her as much as she could, and it was time for her to move up to the next level.

“She suggested I try Nathalie LeVine and Michael Simms in St. Louis,” said Nolting. “And so I went and took a private class with Nathalie . . . and she was extremely complimentary. It was very nice. There were no corrections.

“Then I went and took class with Michael. I went to an intermediate ballet class, and he put me behind a girl who had perfect turnout, perfect feet and could hold her leg up here,” said Nolting, motioning to her head. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ Then we got out on the floor and there was a lot that I didn’t know and a lot that they were doing differently, so I was trying to pick it up as fast as I could, because Penny used to take me to the dance conventions that would come in the summer, and I was used to picking up fast . . . but there was a lot of technique and foundation that I was missing.

“So after that class, I watched the advanced ballet class, because I was going to take the advanced jazz class and redeem myself, because jazz was my thing, so I get in there and there’s this girl laying on the floor and she takes her leg all the way back, and at that point, I could maybe get my leg straight up and I looked like chicken wings, I had no turnout and I was very stiff.

“I cried all the way home, and my mom was like, you don’t ever have to dance again if you don’t want to . . . and I was like, ‘Mom, you don’t get it. I want to dance like them!’ ” Nolting recalled. “I was so upset about how much I had to catch up.”

Catching Up, Flying Past

Nolting began taking classes from Michael Simms at his studio in Clayton. Initially, she never felt more out of place, but that just made her work all the more.

“I’m 12, 13. I have bangs, glasses and braces. Nobody wants to talk to me there because they’re all from Clayton and Ladue, the upper crust, and I was from the country,” recalled Nolting. “So I worked my butt off. Mom would drive me in twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

“In Michael’s ballet class, on Mondays he would give the bar, so by Wednesday he was just reviewing the bar, which was our warm up, the pliés and the tendus and stuff. By Saturday, they could do it in their sleep, but I only came on two days. They came six. So on Mondays, they learned it, on Wednesday, I was seeing it for the first time, but they already knew it. By Saturday, it was like they had been doing it all their lives, and I was like, ‘What was that we did on Wednesday?’

“So by only getting those twice a week, I had to really learn how to pick up. I had to really pay attention to details,” said Nolting.

“It could have been a breaking situation for me, if I hadn’t been so motivated to go forward . . . Michael’s was a game changer for me.”

By the time Nolting was 15, she had come a long way. She was “really strong” in advanced ballet and at the top of the advanced jazz class. Simms suggested she audition for The Muny, even though dancers were supposed to be 16.

“He said just go, do it for the experience,” Nolting recalled.

“So I went in, the choreographer would ask for doubles, and I’d do triples. And finally he was like, ‘I can tell that you can turn, so now when I ask for doubles, just do doubles . . . ”

Nolting landed the part and spent that summer of ’71 living with her mother’s aunt in St. Louis, catching rides to The Muny from another girl in the chorus, Anita Columbo, who went on to be Miss Missouri in 1972. Nolting worked the following summer at The Muny, when she was 16, this time getting around in a car she bought with her savings from teaching.

“I paid cash for it,” she recalled. “A little ’68 red Mustang with a black racing stripe. It was very cool.”

The two years that Nolting worked at The Muny, the adult chorus danced in every single show, which made for a grueling schedule.

“You would go in and rehearse from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for the show coming up, and then at 7 p.m. you’d get back and do the show that was that week, and on Saturday, after the show, you would come back at midnight and do the dress rehearsal for the show from midnight to 6 a.m., and then on Sunday you would come back in at 3 for orchestra rehearsal.

“Sunday night you would do the old show, and Monday you would come in early to go on the stage with the orchestra . . . So I got a chance to do so much choreography and learn so many different styles, because we were in so many different shows.”

One of those was “Cabaret” with Joel Gray and the original Broadway cast. In the dance parts, Nolting explained, there was only one dance that could use all the girls, and everything else was trios and duets.

“You had to audition . . . I got every single part. It was so exciting,” she said, smiling. “I’m sure that didn’t always settle well with the older people, but I was having such a great time! It was like, this is what I have been wanting to do for my whole entire life!”

Then in the middle of Nolting’s junior year at Washington High School, another opportunity presented itself — an audition for “The Golddiggers.” Again, she was underage to audition, but she never expected she would get the part and just wanted to do it for the experience.

“We get there, we go in, they are all just sitting there. I go back out and tell (Mom), ‘Let’s go. They’re all better than me.’ And she says, ‘What are they doing?’ And I said, ‘They’re just sitting there. I can just tell they’re all better than me.’ And she says, ‘Get back in there. I didn’t get you out of school just to get you intimidated.’

“So they get to the end of the audition, and they film and tape three of us and tell us we’re going to get a phone call in like a month. And we’ll see — they were auditioning girls all around the country. They called a month later, and said they had eight girls they had chosen and they were going to bring us all to California for the final audition. I had never been on a plane before so my mom went with me. They put us in this little dinky motel that was a block from the studio.”

During the audition, Agnes Nolting stayed at the hotel wearing a wool suit and “luck” ring, the same ensemble she had worn when Lee nailed her auditions for The Muny. Her superstition worked.

Lee was chosen as one of Martin’s eight “Golddiggers,” who went on tour immediately singing and dancing in nightclubs. Hot Springs, Ark., was their first stop.

“We did Caesars Palace and the Thunderbird, so we were in Vegas at least three times,” said Nolting. “We were in Mexico City two or three times.”

Of the eight girls in the group, Nolting was the youngest at 17. Just as they were getting ready to leave on tour, she confessed that she was underage, since the group would be performing in nightclubs, but it was too late to replace her.

“Every single show we did, we all had parts where we would talk to the audience . . . so my thing was that I was the baby of the group and I was having my birthday and I was turning 18, all year long,” Nolting said with a grin.

“That was a year of just being thrown in to the best of everything. This was ’73-’74. It was just so much fun.”

Nolting, who was still technically a junior in high school, tried at first to complete her classes through the mail, but when the tour and rehearsal schedule picked up, something had to give. With her parents’ permission, Nolting dropped out of high school and later took the GED test.

A Year in New York

After “The Golddiggers,” Nolting lived in Florida for a few months and then moved to Las Vegas for a year, mostly taking dance classes. When she came back to Missouri, she found herself drawn to teaching.

“I started teaching at every single dance studio that was a big deal. At Webster University, at Fontbonne. I was all over the place,” said Nolting.

She worked on a TV pilot, did the choreography for and had a role in “Hair” (with the nude scene) at Forest Park Community College and more.

“So I was doing a lot of local stuff, but it was always something that hadn’t been done yet and was really kind of cool,” Nolting remarked.

By the early ’80s, she had made up her mind to move to New York to dance. Before she left, she met the man she would later marry, Darryl Braddix.

He was teaching the Dunham technique (created by world-renowned Miss Katherine Dunham who developed isolations, or moving one part of your body in isolation) at Simms studio where Nolting was teaching jazz and tap.

“I watched (his class) for a while, and I was like I can do that better than anyone else in there. So I found out when his next class was and I did something I never did — wore makeup to class.”

It wasn’t long after that they were a couple.

Nolting spent one year in New York City wanting to work as a dancer, but spending more time taking classes and working as a waitress/bartender.

“It was a great time of dancing and getting better, but never hardly getting a chance to go to auditions,” she said. “When I did go, I wasn’t the right type, the right height, the right this or the right that.”

New York City was a scarier place back then, said Nolting, recalling how one day a body was found in a bag on her street and one night, as she was coming home, someone had fallen and been run over by the train.

She spent the last month in New York strictly taking classes, not trying to work, and when the money ran out, she came home to Missouri. That’s when she made a promise to herself.

“I said if I ever had students who made it up to New York, we were going to have a network,” said Nolting. And that is just when they do.

“Now that I have so many students who are making it and are up there, they open their apartments for my students when they come up for summer intensives. I had one who went to Ailey . . . . and they all gave him the scoop on what to do, what not to do. They all came to his show. They all go to each other’s shows. It’s like a family.

“It’s what I try to get them to understand with COCAdance, that we’re a family. We don’t backbite and compete. We are happy for each other for whatever we get. I don’t want to feed into that other negativity.”

Cultural Awakenings

Braddix helped launch the Katherine Dunham Children’s Workshop in East St. Louis 1981, and Nolting was the ballet, jazz, tap teacher and the rehearsal assistant. All of the programs were free, funded by grants.

For Nolting, it was a cultural awakening.

“That was key for me,” said Nolting. “Being with Miss Dunham. Seeing how those kids lived over there, and still do. Seeing how they have to grow up way too soon. Then there were kids whose parents wouldn’t come pick them up, or they would show up to class and they hadn’t eaten, so it was a lot of life lessons.”

The diversity of students she taught at the Dunham Children’s Workshop laid the groundwork for what she does today at COCA.

“I feel like I’m the communicator when I’m working with diverse groups,” Nolting remarked. “I’m kind of like the translator. ”

When Nolting began the dance program at COCA in 1987, it was much smaller than today.

“We had a one-page brochure,” she recalled. “There was a lady who taught creative movement and then there was me.”

From the start the goal was to train students in dance, to know proper technique, whether for recreational dancing or as the start for a career.

In 1991, Nolting established the COCAdance company. Students have to audition, and the company offers lots of advanced opportunities.

“We bring in nationally known choreographers to work with them,” said Nolting. “It is for the students who really are thinking about a career, to see if they really want to put that much time and energy in. If they can handle the choreographers, it is a huge network for them.”

Arts in Education

Looking back, Nolting credits the Washington Public Schools for giving her the kind of start she needed to have a career in the arts.

“I was so lucky. In Washington Missouri Public Schools, I had violin in fifth grade. I started clarinet in sixth grade. We had vocal music all the way through. We had visual arts all the way through.

“I loved the arts. In high school, I was in the band, the orchestra. My sophomore year, we went to music concerts. I went to state and got a vocal solo, a violin solo, and clarinet solo, a wind trio . . . . I loved the violin.”

The arts are a critical part of education.

“Life is awful without the arts,” she remarked. “A well-rounded, good life includes the arts.”