Dancing Queen: Jo Carlisle hangs up her dance shoes after 62 years


For some of us, it takes a little while – and several different tries – to settle on a career path.

For Jo Carlisle, there never really was much of a question.

“I’ve danced all my life,” said Carlisle, who was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1941. “There wasn’t anything else that I ever wanted to do – I’ve just always danced since I was 7.”

And it shows, as the recently-retired Carlisle – who is celebrating her 62nd anniversary as a dance teacher and her 50th as an instructor at her own studio in the Petal/Hattiesburg area – has a resume that would be the envy of dancers around the world.

Carlisle’s passion for dance was sparked as a student at Conn’s Studio of Dance and the Lillian Hyde School of Dance in the Hattiesburg/Laurel area. She remained at the Hyde School until 1959, at which point she moved to Key West, Florida, and attended the Lorraine Butler School of Dance from 1960-1962.

In 1963, she opened Jo Carlisle’s School of Dance in Jacksonville, Florida, before serving as a U.S. military base dance and gym instructor in May Port, Florida from 1965-1967.

Carlisle returned to the Petal/Hattiesburg area in 1968, opening Jo Carlisle’s School of Dance, Gymnastics & Twirl. She expanded her business by opening additional branches in Hattiesburg, Oak Grove and Columbia. Carlisle’s grandson, Blake Nagy, began assistant teaching at her studios in 2001, and the business name was changed to Jo Carlisle & Blake Nagy’s Performing Arts Centers in 2008.

In between all that, Carlisle studied under various dance instructors in Boston, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; Kent State University in Kent, Ohio; Houston, Texas; Las Vegas, Nevada and New Orleans, Louisiana. She has been a certified instructor by Dance Masters of America and Dance Masters of Florida since 1966.

In addition, she’s been featured as a dancer on a television variety show in Kansas City, Kansas and has spent time as a dancer for the United Service Organizations.

Through the years, Carlisle’s love of dance has been augmented by the relationships she’s made with the thousands of children and parents that have come through her doors.

“It’s just the children (I will miss) … and most of the parents,” said Carlisle, who now lives in Petal. “You make some really awesome friends. It just completes your life.

“I never tried to make a child feel like they had to be perfect. Nobody’s perfect – there’s only one perfect man – and that’s what I tried to instill in them.”

One of the countless students inspired by Carlisle’s passion and values is Raquel White Davis, who was a student of hers from 1977-1992.

“(That time) under her instruction meant the world,” said Davis, who spent time as a New Orleans Saintsation from 1992-1996 after leaving Carlisle’s school. “It instilled a passion in dance in me that hasn’t gone away. I still love to dance – I dance around the house, I dance with my children, I dance whenever I get the chance.

“It’s a big part of who I am. I would think that when people think of me, they think of dancing.”

To help celebrate Carlisle’s career in dance, several of her former students arranged a surprise alumni performance at her 50th Dance/Gymnastics Recital at Jones County Junior College last Saturday. The group performed a routine they did 25 years ago to the song “Soul Tambourine.”

Davis said following the performance, Carlisle told the alumni dancers that watching them perform together again brought tears to her eyes.

“We chose that dance because it was always one of her favorites,” Davis said.

After the recital, a group of alumni dancers hosted an evening of celebration at the Catfish Wagon in Petal, where Carlisle received a standing ovation from the crowd of family, friends and students when she entered the room. Davis and her 14-year-old son, Landry, collected pictures, video clips and congratulatory messages from family and friends to create a tribute video to Carlisle that was played during the event.  

Petal Ward 6 Alderman Craig Bullock assisted Davis in obtaining a proclamation from the City of Petal, signed by Petal Mayor Hal Marx, that was read aloud and presented to Carlisle that evening.  The event included many aspects that celebrated her career, including a final line-up of dancers to curtsy with Carlisle one last time. 

“She never let us leave class without a hug, kiss on the head and a curtsy, so we decided to end the celebration in the same manner,” Davis said.

As people were saying their goodbyes, Davis decided to play the song “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters because she wanted the evening to end with an upbeat vibe, and the song was one that Carlisle had taught them a dance to many years ago. 

When the song began to play, Carlisle began to dance, and several alumni dancers rushed to the center of the room to dance beside her. 

“Back in the day, it was a privilege and honor to dance with her on stage at the recital as a Jo Carlisle Special Entertainer,” Davis said. “I’d always been sad, because the year I was promoted to be a Special Entertainer, she decided to stop dancing with the group.  I was broken hearted about it because it was my goal as a student of hers. I’m certain it was the goal of most of her students.

“That spontaneous moment of dance with her at her party was very sentimental and moving to me, because when she started dancing, I saw it as my one and only opportunity to dance with her on a stage. It was certainly my favorite moment of the night.”

Carlisle said the celebration was one of a kind.

“It was (awesome) – I’ve never seen anything like it,” Carlisle said. “It really was unbelievable. I was flabbergasted.”

Davis said Carlisle’s career continues to blow her away after all these years.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I cannot imagine sticking with something that long – the same job every day for more than 60 years.

“The whole production of putting on a recital is quite intense and involved. There’s all the preparations for it in regards to the choreography, getting costumes fitted and ordered, stage preparations - just thinking of the enormous effort that goes into the whole thing is impressive to me. And for someone to choose to continuously do it, over and over, for that many years is just inspiring.”

And while Carlisle may have specialized in dance, that certainly wasn’t the only thing being taught in her studios.

“She taught us love for one another,” Davis said. “She never judged. She was somebody who always made everybody feel like somebody.

“As one of the other alumni dancers pointed out during her tribute, growing up, we all thought we (individually) were her favorite student, but in reality, everyone was her favorite student. She loved each one of us equally, and made each one of us feel equally special. She instilled in us work ethic, because what we saw in her was a dedicated, hardworking woman business owner … and there was just so many other things so taught us in addition to dance. I think that’s why she means so much to so many people.”

After a 62-year career, Carlisle doesn’t necessarily have any plans, except for spending time with her beloved dogs and cats.

 “I never wanted to retire, really – I felt like it (was something I just had to do),” she said.