Roberts has mastered the art of wrangling energetic young men—particularly kids others have given up on. Some of the boys on her dance team say they would have dropped out or gotten into worse trouble if not for her tough-love deal: If they want to dance, they need to stay in school and earn passing grades. The 16 boys in Roberts's Inertia Dance Company won every hip-hop contest they entered this year, including the prestigious M.A. Dance Company's National High School Dance Championships. Just as impressive: No one flunked out and all the seniors graduated. "The only reason I passed classes is because of dance," says Kirk Beecher, 18. "If I didn't do it, I wouldn't be happy—and I'd be on the street."
He wouldn't be alone. Nathan Cano, 18, lives more than 20 miles from Westside, in Houston's low-income Third Ward, where he used to hang out with gang members. Commuting to play basketball, he was kicked off the squad for failing classes but wandered into Roberts's classroom one day and started dancing. "I'm actually good at something now," says Cano, who has also pulled his F's up to A's. G.T. Garza, 18, was detained by police after he says his buddies, playing, with firecrackers, set a blaze that burned an isolated wooded area the summer before he started high school. Though police didn't press charges, his mother later grounded him, and "a lot of my friends went to jail," he says. He was looking for the school gym when he stumbled into Roberts's class four years ago. A rapper as well as a dancer, he now dreams of studying music engineering and opening his own recording studio. Roberts "never gave up on us," says Garza. "I know a lot of people would have given up real quick."
Roberts was never a quitter. She started dance classes as a 6-year-old in Houston, but her mother, Gwendy, says a staph infection in Roberts's leg at 10 left her hospitalized for six weeks and in a cast for eight months. "Dance was the big thing that really developed her leg back again," says Gwendy, 68, a teacher. Studying modern dance in college and then earning a master's in dance education, Roberts performed across the country and then taught dance at an elementary school before landing a job at Houston's Lamar High.
It was there, in 1996, that she noticed boys break-dancing during lunch and after school in the parking lot. She invited them to dance in her studio on one condition: no skipping school. Soon she had 30 boys, and after she secured a grant to hire teacher Ricky Cardenas, 29, a local break-dancer, enrollment jumped to 70. So impressed was Scott Van Beck, principal of the new Westside High, that in 2000 he lured her to launch the school's studio, where she teaches 250 students (only some considered at risk).
Though she teaches girls as well, her real impact has been on the boys, whom she has whipped into shape by blending maternal zeal with the tactics of a drill sergeant. Along with the rigorous 55-minute dance classes during school hours, the boys on the team are expected to attend training sessions during lunch and after school several days a week. If a student doesn't have a ride to a rehearsal, Roberts will pick them up and ferry them home. But she's also not beyond threatening to phone parents, yanking them from competitions or even demanding that they repay the costs of entry fees and uniforms if they skip out or fail. At first, those tough tactics didn't always fly with parents, some of whom complained to administrators—until they saw the kids dance. "They're used to dance teachers who are cuddly," says Van Beck. "But she really gets kids to grow up."
To Roberts, that's the real point: imparting discipline, a work ethic and a sense of accomplishment. "People see the dancing, but to me this is all life lessons," she says. "It's about being successful when you leave."
Thomas Fields-Meyer. Wendy Grossman in Houston