Be Nice, Be A Belle
By Joy Donovan
Photos by Mike Lewis
Southlake’s Emerald Belles drill team marks a milestone, and its longtime director has been there many, many steps along the way
A love of dance, leadership, teaching and students has kept Melissa Page at the same job for 27 years with Southlake’s Carroll Independent School District.
As director of the award-winning Emerald Belles drill team, the dancer turned teacher turned second mom has been kicking, coaching and loving her way to the top of the dance world in Southlake — and beyond — for almost three decades. Her influence has been powerful in many areas, including the lives of her team members. She has 76 students this coming school year.
“Obviously, I love dance and I love working with people,” she said, reflecting on her coaching career, which totals 31 years at several schools. “I wanted to teach, but I didn’t want to do just dance. I wanted to be able to work with girls. I knew I could help and be positive with them.”
The Texas Dance Educators Association, a group more than 900-strong, recognized that influence in 2022, naming Page director of the year. The “honor of her career,” she said, included addressing the convention earlier this year.
“I was a dancer, but this program she has built out is not just about dance,” said Carrie Ellen Adamian, a former Broadway dancer and now mother of one of the drill team officers. “She is teaching these girls how to be a leader. She is teaching these girls how to be respectful to each other. She is teaching these girls to have each others’ backs and to build each other up. It’s fabulous.”
Page first put on dance shoes at 3 in El Campo, where she grew up. At what was then Southwest Texas State University, Page made the Strutters dance team while majoring in secondary education with a dance specialization. Her first coaching job after college was in Brenham, where she knew no one and ate, slept and breathed dance team 24/7. She thought she wanted to do college drill team coaching, so for four years, she directed at the high school and at Blinn College.
Then she accepted the directorship of the Emerald Belles in Southlake, and she’s been wearing green, black and white ever since. The Belles — comprising students from Carroll Senior High School and Carroll High School — will celebrate their 60th year this season with a celebration Sept. 1 at Dragon Stadium.
“Emerald Belles is so respected in our community,” Page said. “It was great when I got here, but in the past 27 years, it’s escalated in so many ways.”
Page’s dancers, colleagues and booster club parents consistently pay tribute to the director.
“She’s amazing,” said Hannah Ganiear, who will serve as the team’s captain this coming school year. “I could not ask for a better director. I think she’s the perfect role model for all of us. She teaches us way more than how to kick or to dance. She teaches us about how to be kind to others. She has a huge heart and love for others, and it’s amazing to look up to that.”
In a football-obsessed town, the Emerald Belles team has enough accolades to fill its own trophy case in the high school’s front hall.
Under Page’s watchful eye, the team appeared in 2019 on NBC’s nationally televised America’s Got Talent competition. The dancers made it to the show’s quarterfinals, where they were watched by an audience of millions and impressed judge Simon Cowell, a famously hard sell, and Julianne Hough, herself a dancer. The Belles spent 10 days in Hollywood, perfecting routines for live performances.
“As a director, that’s going to go down as the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Page said. “There was so much pressure to get it right. It all goes to say that the Belles were good 27 years ago, but as of four years ago, it catapulted us into another realm of opportunities.”
Those opportunities included an appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show, three halftime performances with the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and dancing at Dallas Mavericks games.
“There’s a reason that the Belles and the (Carroll) football team are in contention for honors every year,” said Scott Hall, father of a former Dragon football player and a former Belle. “They are incredibly talented and incredibly well-led. They’re both the best in the business.”
“When you think about the Emerald Belles, you think excellence and tradition,” Riley Dodge, coach of the Dragons football team, said. “We are so grateful for their unwavering support every Friday night. They are one of the reasons that Friday nights in Southlake, Texas, are so special.”
Being best, though, isn’t the most important goal to Page. Being nice is.
“I get emotional when I talk about it,” said Page, whose team motto is “Be kind, Be a Belle.” “I’ve always been big on how we treat each other and kindness and respecting each other and being inclusive.”
Talent has taken the Belles a long way, too. Some of Page’s students have gone on to dance for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Dallas Mavericks, on Broadway, in Hollywood productions and on cruise ships. Others have become dance team directors.
“She’s definitely the reason I do what I do,” said Karis Warren Van, Emerald Belle captain for the 2007-08 school year. She now is the director of the Premier Panteras dance team at Colleyville Heritage High School. “I saw her ability to be such a light and a mentor to these girls in high school. It made me want to do what I do today.”
In her lengthy career, Page can only guess how many high kicks she’s perfected, bus rides she’s taken and games she’s watched. She estimates she has coached at least 1,000 dancers.
She pushes them hard, because she wants them to be the best they can be. But even as she expects excellence from her dancers, she knows everyone is dealing with their own challenges every day. Page’s own life has had its struggles, and the team has recognized that, too.
In 2018, Page’s only child, Reed Daniel Bartosh, died. In his memory, the Emerald Belles booster club initiated a college scholarship for Belles.
“You never know when someone is struggling, and they noticed I was struggling,” said Page, who likens the support to being “wrapped in kindness.” “Through my tragedy, it has made my team aware that we can do more and bigger things than dance at halftime.”
The Emerald Belles also volunteer within the community. Page’s son had long been concerned about homelessness, so, in addition to assisting other charities, the Belles have conducted clothing drives for First Street Methodist Mission at First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, where Page volunteers each Wednesday. “It’s very special to me,” she said.
Page could have retired by now, but she doesn’t foresee it happening soon. As if she hasn’t already, she says she is trying to do everything she can to make an impact.
“These girls are my girls,” she said. “I love them. They are like my kids.”