For the love of dance

The Beautiful Ones prepare to perform their routine Thursday at Prairie Living in Chautauqua in Carbondale.

The Beautiful Ones prepare to perform their routine Thursday at Prairie Living in Chautauqua in Carbondale. "In dancing you’re free, like a butterfly," said LaTricia Pettis-White, the group’s creative director. "It’s like an expression without even saying anything. … You’re just free." – March 31, 2016. Carbondale, Ill. (Morgan Timms | @morgan_timms)

By Anna Spoerre, @annaspoerre

Beauty starts at home.

This is the motto of a Murphysboro youth dance group called the Beautiful Ones. It was created in 2009 by LaTricia Pettis-White, a 45-year-old single mother of eight who works as a teaching assistant for children with behavior issues at the Tri-County Education Center in Anna.

Pettis-White, a 6-foot-1 woman who compares herself to a teddy bear, grew up in the housing projects on Chicago’s South Side, where at the age of 9 she found an affordable dance center to attend.

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“Dancing is like freedom,” she said. “It’s like an expression.”

LaTricia Pettis-White, of Murphysboro, watches from the front as the Beautiful Ones perform a dance routine March 31 for the community at Prairie Living in Chautauqua in Carbondale. Pettis-White began the dance group in 2009 and since then between 50 and 60 children have participated. Pettis-White said her favorite part of being the Beautiful Ones’ creative director is watching the girls perform together as a team. “When they perform, everyone’s in sync,” Pettis-White said. “The little kids are doing exactly what the big kids are doing and the big kids are doing exactly what I told them to do. … Just seeing them do it together is the ultimate.” — March 31, 2016, Carbondale, Ill. (Morgan Timms | @morgan_timms)

Decades later Pettis-White created a free dance group for the children in her community after moving into low-income housing in Murphysboro where she said there wasn’t much for children in the neighborhood to be involved in.

It started as an etiquette group for young ladies called the Beautiful Girls. Pettis-White said her original intention was to reduce bullying among local girls, but one night while hosting a sleepover for the girls, they decided to also become a dance group, partially funded by Jackson County Housing Authority.

The group also fundraises to support its performances and uniforms.

They were renamed the Beautiful Ones in 2011 — the same year her sons wanted to join. The group has since won numerous awards at local events and parades and frequently volunteers in the community by packing food at shelters and performing at nursing homes.

Pettis-White said it can be difficult finding places to practice. Sometimes they rehearse in the park or her driveway, other times they move her living room furniture and practice there.

She must keep the program going, she said, so the children don’t end up getting involved in drugs, sex or violence.

“This is a distraction for these kids,” she said. “If they don’t get the attention at home, they’ll seek the attention outside the home.”

About 55 children have been part of the group — 25 currently— and Pettis-White said she treats each like her own child.

LaTricia Pettis White’s 16-year-old daughter, Empress Hardimon, closes the back window on the Beautiful Ones piled into LaTricia Pettis-White’s car Thursday after the group’s performance at Prairie Living in Chautauqua in Carbondale. “I’ve been a beautiful one for about seven years now,” Hardimon said. “My mom and my older brother taught me a lot of dancing and they really brought out how much I love dancing.” — March 31, 2016, Carbondale, Ill. (Morgan Timms | @morgan_timms)

Last year the group continued to influence Pettis-White’s life in a way she did not expect. She was asked to take part in the Miss Illinois Plus America pageant with the dance group as her platform.

“It’s teaching me that I am beautiful regardless of how I look,” she said.

Pettis-White recently won the cover girl challenge, which means she will be featured on the program covers at the state pageant April 16 in Chicago.

She encourages mothers to be role models for their daughters, and all women to know their worth.

“It’s important for us to love these kids,” she said.

For Pettis-White, her strength comes from the bond she has with those kids.

“Everything starts at home,” she said. “And that’s why my door is open.”

Anna Spoerre can be reached at [email protected] or 618-536-3325.

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