Sometimes, stars align and the improbable becomes real; fate overcomes odds, and special, unforgettable moments are born.
That was the case for a young woman standing on an Atlantic City stage in September 1994, when an unlikely dream to become the next “Miss America” was realized.
When announced the winner of the prestigious pageant by celebrity-host Regis Philbin, Heather Whitestone, a junior in college and reigning Miss Alabama, became the country’s first deaf Miss America in the 70-year history of the competition.
Little more than 17 years after the night, fate smiled again.
This time on a group of young performers who, thanks to a chance encounter, were given the opportunity to meet and learn from a dancing hero.
Thursday, students of the Statesboro School of Dance came face-to-face with the 1995 Miss America winner, now Heather Whitestone-McCallum, who ventured to Statesboro to speak with children after meeting the studio’s owner at an event earlier this year.
“Mrs. McCallum and I met back in July at a fundraiser in St. Simons,” said Shay Morgan, owner of the Statesboro School of Dance — both Morgan, who recently moved and now commutes to the studio, and McCallum call St. Simons home.
“When she found out that I had a dance studio, she was very interested in coming to visit because the talent she did for Miss America was ballet.”
“We had that common interest and common love,” she said. “We started talking, and she said that she would love to come up.”
Thursday, McCallum signed autographs during a meet-and-greet, delivered a speech and taught an advanced-level class the same dance she performed to become an Alabama state champion.
Wide-eyed and eager to learn, students listened to McCallum and later followed step-by-step as she instructed her now famous dance.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for students to get to meet (McCallum),” Morgan said. “She has accomplished so much in her life. What she has done is so inspiring for young girls. It sends a message that no matter what, you can do anything if you work hard enough.”
McCallum echoed that thought in the short speech she gave to the dancers, urging them to not give up on their dreams and remember that anything is possible with faith and hard work.
“Sometimes we get discouraged and forget that anything is possible,” she said. “When you don’t accomplish your goals, you should not be discouraged. It can be a good message for you, because you will learn so much more about yourself through your failures.”
The former Miss America would know; she was runner-up in the Miss Alabama pageant more than once before winning in ’94. And she consistently delivered dancing performances that blew judges away, without the luxury of hearing any music.
McCallum described to students how she would learn and memorize patterns/beats of songs by feeling the speakers as they vibrated — since, she has been the recipient of a cochlear implant and can hear a bit more.
She emphasized commitment as a means to achieving one’s dreams.
“It is a lot of work,” she said. “I’m sure all the girls here have big dreams and soon they’ll be going into the world. They can’t give up.”
After the speech, it was all toes and pirouettes when McCallum walked students through her dance, eventually watching as groups took their turns at performing it.
It was a welcome reintroduction to ballet for the former Miss America — and mother of three boys — who says chances to experience her passion have become fewer and farther between.
“I’m very excited to be here for this,” McCallum said. “I’ve been around boys all of the time. Boys want to play baseball, basketball and football, not do ballet.”
“I have loved to dance since I was five years old,” she said. “I miss it. I really do. This brings back a lot of memories.”
According to Morgan, students will have a chance to visit with McCallum again very soon.
McCallum accepted an invitation to be a speaker for the Statesboro School of Dance’s upcoming Faith in Motion shows in the Emma Kelly Theater at the Averitt Center for the Arts later this month.
The former Miss America plans to deliver a message about maintaining faith and believing anything to be possible with the help of God. She also picked one student to perform her dance from the Miss Alabama pageant at the event.
The free shows are scheduled for Jan. 28 at 2, 4 and 6 p.m.
Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454.