Rondo’s ‘lady of line dance’ keeps community moving

A dance instructor counts off during a song
Tina Jackson teaches the “Cha Cha Cha” at a drop-in soul line dancing class at Oxford Community Center in St. Paul, Minn. on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Looking around Tina Jackson’s soul line dancing class at Oxford Community Center in the heart of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, you can feel the excitement as students walk into class and get ready to dance. As Jackson introduces the first routine the room fills with smiles, and one by one the dancers join in, ready to groove to the music. 

Jackson, known by her community as Tina “Lady of Line Dance” Jackson, has been teaching soul line dancing for over 15 years. Every week she brings people together from all walks of life to learn the classic routines and come together through the music.

For Jackson, teaching soul line dancing is how she gives back to her community. She was born and raised near Rondo in the St. Anthony neighborhood and grew up going to the Oxford Community Center. Her childhood mentors helped her get started as a teacher and over the years she has built a community of dancers from everywhere she goes. 

“I can’t go anywhere without people coming up and being like ‘Aren’t you that lady that teaches line dancing?’ Or I can go to the Dollar tree or Cub and I’ll have a guy go, ‘Oh hey! I know that’s you!’ And they’ll start dancing in the aisle,” Jackson said with a smile. “It’s really funny but people just kind of recognize me because of the line dancing.”

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Most of the people in Jackson’s class are in their mid-40s to 80s. Many of them have been coming to class for years, some for over a decade. Theresa Phillips is one of them. She first came to class with her cousin while battling cancer. 

She didn’t expect to come back for more than one class, but quickly changed her mind.

“I came with her and we danced that first time and I’m like, ‘I kinda like this!’ So I went back to the next session without her, then the next one and the next one,” Phillips said. “Now ten years later I’m still here like ‘Can I get more?”

Rande Tomas is another longtime member of the “Gotta Dance Soul Line Dancers.” Tomas was a professional dancer who appeared on the popular 70s TV show “Soul Train.” He remembers watching Jackson’s class while working out in the community center. After some convincing, he decided to give dancing another try.

A group of dancers pose for a group photo
Dancers pose for a group photo at a drop-in class taught by Tina Jackson on Tuesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I kept thinking, ‘God it’s been so long since I’ve danced, can I do that?’” Tomas remembered. “One day I decided to take the class and I went down there and I sucked. I couldn’t pick up the steps, I couldn’t do it, but I kept going back. Eventually I found out as long as I just enjoy myself it just came.”

Tomas says what makes Jackson special is the way she cares for her students, and the class has become like family to him.

“We love each other. We support each other. We hate each other — let’s not leave that out,” Tomas joked with a laugh. “You know, but in a good way. So it’s really nice to be a part of a group that seems to support everyone.”

Two women laugh and hold hands while another stands nearby
Nedy Windham (left) and Fayette Farrar-Wulf (center) laugh during a break between songs.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Back in class it’s been nearly two hours and the dancers have hardly stopped, and for Jackson, it’s her students' excitement that keeps her love for the dance going strong. 

“The people who come to the class regularly have been so supportive. A lot of them have been with me since day one and they still come to class each week,” Jackson said. “Some people we may not see for months at a time and then they come back and we pick up just where we left off.”

As her community of soul line dancers grows, Jackson loves to see new faces come to class each week. And she says, no matter who you are, soul line dancing is for everyone.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.