Jason Patterson isn’t the kind of guy you’d peg as a regular at dance recitals. He’s a power-lifting champion who weighs 365 pounds and bench presses 450. He coaches football in his community and spots fellow weightlifters at his local gym. When it comes to athletics, he’s known for his booming voice and his take-no-prisoners attitude.
Mention his kids, though, and he becomes a giant mushball.
That explains why the hulk of a father never hesitated when his daughter Isabella enthusiastically took up dancing at age 3. Isabella is now 17 and captain of her high school dance team, and she can’t remember a single dance event her dad missed.
“He’s been there for everything,” she said. “He’s always had my back.”
Patterson is just one of hundreds of “dance dads” across the country who show up in big ways for their little girls, even if they don’t immediately understand the appeal of glittery dance costumes or bright stage makeup. TODAY’s Craig Melvin recently spent time with dedicated dance dads in his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, and one message emerged again and again: If something is making their daughters happy, the dads want to be part of it.
“Whatever it is, I’m there,” said Dustin Pollard, a Lexington County Sheriff’s Department deputy who sews frilly dance outfits and bows for his daughter, Harper, and other members of her studio dance team. “I’m there because they love me being there with them.”
‘I’ll do anything for my girls’
At the Southern Strutt Dance Studio in South Carolina, dance dads apply makeup, style hair, design costumes and build and transport stage props. During performances, they hover backstage with butterflies in their bellies.
“I don’t even like sitting in the audience and watching the performances anymore,” dad Kelly Ward told Melvin. “I’m so used to seeing it from the backstage view.”
Dad Brent Clark has become a whiz at building elaborate stage props for performances. Melvin marveled at Clark’s handiwork during his visit to Southern Strutt.
“You don’t have a background in props?” Melvin asked.
“I do not have a background in props,” Clark replied. “I have a background in sales.”
“So, this started as a way to just hang out with your daughter more?”
“That’s exactly right. To be closer,” Clark said. “It’s a lot of work, but it puts me where my kids are. And that’s really where I want to be.”
Another father, Antonio Williams, told Melvin that he initially bristled when someone called him “dance dad of the year.”
“At first, I was, like, ‘I don’t need to be doing this. I’m a man,’” Williams said as he carefully applied eyeshadow to his little girl. “But, you know ... I’ll do anything for my girls.”
‘She’s got a dad forever’
Patterson, the power-lifting dance dad in Tennessee, confessed that he also felt awkward at times when Isabella was younger and hyper-involved in studio dance.
“I was there for all of it, but I didn’t really understand it,” said Patterson, who works as a financial adviser for Raymond James Financial. “I’d say, ‘You looked really pretty in your outfit, baby.’”
He laughed as he recalled how his athletic intensity was met with confusion, if not outright shock, in the studio dance world: “Yeah, they didn’t take very well to this dad yelling on the side, ‘You have GOT to nail that plie! If you don’t get your core strength up, you’re NOT going to be able to nail this number!’”
Fast-forward to Isabella’s ninth-grade year, when she joined her high school dance team and started asking her father for strength-training and injury-prevention tips.
“She started saying, ‘Hey, Dad, can you add me to your Gold’s Gym membership so I can go to the gym with you in the mornings? Can you make sure I’m up at 5:45 so I can get there on time?’” Patterson remembered. “I couldn’t believe it — she was speaking my language! ...
“These girls are athletes. You see them in the weight room, lifting, running, getting their cardio in, working out like it’s any other sport. Seriously, they’re working harder than most of the boys on the football team! I’ll just say it! ... Once I saw her team’s athleticism and saw how hard they worked, I was hooked.”
Isabella is now going into her senior year at Hendersonville High School, where she will be class president and captain of the Golden Girls Dance Team. She loves it that her father is the Golden Girls’ unofficial “team dad.” When team members are flagging and need a little extra motivation, Patterson is known for swooping in with one of his signature high-energy pep talks, exhorting the girls to “GIVE EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT!” and “LEAVE IT ALL OUT THERE!”
“One time the team was nervous, so their coach asked me to talk to them,” Patterson said. “I yelled something you might expect to hear in a locker room. The girls’ eyes bugged out and they went berserk — and then they went out there and won state!”
Isabella described her dad as “a big teddy bear, 100 percent,” and said she’s grateful for his support in her life.
“Seeing him pour into me so much spiritually and leading me to be the best version of me I can be, that really helps my friends too,” she said. “His positivity feeds into my positivity, which feeds into their positivity. It makes everybody better.”
Clark, the dad who builds stage props in South Carolina, said he hopes his daughter will look back on his presence with similar fondness.
“I want her to know that she’s got a dad forever,” Clark said. “I want her to know that I’m always there for her. I couldn't imagine being anywhere else, really.”