High Ponies with a higher purpose

On Tuesdays in April, 180 to 200 pre-K- to fifth-grade girls and boys fill the Jasper Middle School gymnasium as Jill Wigand and members of Jasper Dance lead them through a series of fun activities. Activities like dance, gymnastics and cheer, as well as guest speakers teaching various topics ranging from citizenship, healthy eating habits and even some yoga. In the photo, Jill and her volunteers lead the students through some fun dance moves to kick off the evening. Photo by Amy Crane.

High Ponies is about two hours of controlled chaos each Tuesday evening in April.

Led by Jill Wigand and her entourage of volunteer Jasper High School Dance team members, about 180 to 200 girls and some boys fill the Jasper Middle School gym. Through the evening, they move from station to station, performing and practicing dance, cheer and gymnastics routines while learning about self-esteem and character.

Inspired by the fact that many dancers and cheerleaders wear their hair up in a ponytail or high pony, Jill named the program to reflect those bouncing ponytails and point to a higher goal. For Jill, the program is an avenue to inspire and teach these girls and boys self-esteem and positive character traits, as well as nutrition and exercise, while giving them a sense of belonging.

Ten years ago, she launched the program at Fifth Street Elementary with support from community sponsors. The need she was meeting was apparent from the jump with over 180 girls signing up for that first month’s sessions.

“I’ve coached cheer and dance for 35 years,” Jill said. “I see that need for kids.”

She explained that she has seen students so happy as they try out for dance or cheer. But that happiness can turn into hopeless disappointment if they don’t make it.

Between the cost of lessons and lack of access to private programs, these aspiring dancers, gymnasts and cheerleaders don’t have many avenues to learn and practice.

“Now what do they do,” Jill said. “It’s not like basketball. You can’t have a pickup game.”

High Ponies fills that void and also provides a sense of belonging. The girls wear their T-shirts like team jersies. “They love getting that shirt,” Jill added.

Sadie Gore, 7, Ava Price, 6, and Mia Peak, 6, dance and cheer at the beginning of class on Tuesday. Photo by Matthew Crane.

The impact is evident in the teens who volunteer to help. Those girls who first experienced High Ponies at Fifth Street are the ones leading a new generation of students through the same positive experiences.

Jill sees that as an important aspect of the program as well.

“It teaches them responsibility,” she said. “Being able to be in front of people, talking with parents, showing up. Plus, knowing these kids will see them in public so they need to be accountable.”

Her goal and the goal she impresses upon her volunteer coaches is to give the participants a fantastic evening. To cheer them on and make them feel like a million bucks when they walk out the door.

“If we can make them feel like that for the hour and half they are here, then we’ve done our job,” Jill said.

Jill leads the students through dance moves to warm up for the evening of fun. Photo by Matthew Crane.
Jill asks a participant what the word “Citizenship” means during the opening of High Ponies. The children learn about different words connected to ideals like being good community members and self-esteem each week. Photo by Matthew Crane.
Volunteer Anna Ruhe helped Ryleigh Pacileo, 5, with a cartwheel during Tuesday’s High Ponies. Photo by Amy Crane.
Jill demonstrates the movement in the gymnastic portion of the night’s events. Photo by Matthew Crane.
Children complete somersaults across the mats in the mezzanine area in the gym. Photo by Matthew Crane.
Maya Knies leads students through a dance routine on Tuesday evening. Photo by Amy Crane.
From left: Ellie Persohn and Ava Price hold Avery Chammess as they perform a pyramid at one of the activity stations. Photo by Amy Crane.
Girls perform a Jasper Wildcat cheer during Tuesday’s High Ponies. Photo by Amy Crane.
Orianna Hercules whips her hair during the closing dance number, which was led by Jill and her volunteers. Photo by Matthew Crane.