Louise Cantrell with scholarship recipients at University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2018. Courtesy WordFarm Communications

After Tragically Losing Her Family, This Mother Started a Foundation to Send Others to Summer Intensives

In 2012, Louise Cantrell suffered unthinkable loss: Her husband and two daughters—Isabella, 6, and Natalia, 4—died in a house fire. "When the tragedy happened, I lost my husband, our children, our home—and I lost my identity. I was a wife and a mother, and within moments, I was neither."

Though Cantrell herself wasn't a dancer, her daughters were, so helping others dance became her new mission. In 2014, she established the Dance Angels Foundation, a nonprofit to honor and perpetuate the memory of her girls by providing training scholarships. "Without this foundation, I don't believe I'd be where I am today," says Cantrell.

The first scholarship came out of her pocket, and was awarded to a student at Isabella and Natalia's studio, Cumberland Dance Academy, near Fayetteville, North Carolina. She presented it at the end-of-year recital, in front of several hundred parents. "It was actually that first time I'd spoken my daughters' names out loud," says Cantrell. "From that moment forward, it gave me the strength, because my daughters deserve to be known." Each year, she awards a $500 scholarship to a Cumberland Dance Academy student between the ages of 4 and 6.

But the beneficiaries aren't limited to artists in her region. From 2014 to 2019, the Dancing Angels Foundation has awarded $142,000 for dancers all over the U.S. to attend summer intensives. Last year, it helped send 34 students to the program of their choice. "We've sent kids to Italy, we've sent a girl to Amsterdam, and this year we're actually sending a young man to The Royal Ballet," she says.

Stateside, dancers have attended programs at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, The Ailey School, University of North Carolina School of the Arts and many others.

Chief Warrant Officer Edward Cantrell, in his military uniform, crouches in a yard, hugging his young daughters.

Cantrell's husband, Chief Warrant Officer Edward Cantrell, with their daughters, Natalia and Isabella.

Courtesy WordFarm Communications

Applications are still being accepted for 2020 programs on a rolling basis, though Cantrell starts receiving them as early as December, as soon as summer programs being to send acceptance letters. Awards aren't based on finances; instead, recipients are chosen primarily by their essay submission, explaining what the scholarship would mean to them, and a letter of recommendation from a current teacher. "You can learn a lot when you read something," says Cantrell, who's interested in the dancers' character and community involvement.

Award amounts vary, depending on tuition, but have ranged from $500 to $8,000.

Most of what's given out each summer is replenished at the Dancing Angels Foundation's annual fundraiser in Fayetteville. (Although their April event has been postponed due to the coronavirus, they are still accepting donations online here.) It's a day of free fun for the community, with face-painting, donated food and drinks, and performances by previous scholarship recipients. "We have raffle and auction items, and we sell our merchandise, so that's where we make our money," says Cantrell.

And the attendees aren't just from the dance world. "We literally have motorcycle clubs there. We have military there. It's amazing how the arts bring so many different realms of people together."

Cantrell describes her work with the Dancing Angels Foundation as a labor of love. Because her daughters never had the chance to continue in dance, she says, "I don't ever want a dancer to wonder what could have been."

And the thank-you cards she receives after intensives end make it worthwhile. "It's the best feeling when they write, 'There were days we were tired or hurt, didn't want to get up and dance, but we thought about your daughters and what this means, and we went to dance class.' There's nothing more I could ask for."

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