Kitty Carter knows her reputation. After 41 years owning a dance studio in Lake Highlands and more than a decade coaching Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader hopefuls on CMT’s Making the Team, the tough-as-nails instructor has been called a bully more times than she’s counted: five, six, seven, eight.

Carter isn’t interested in defending herself for bluntly telling dancers all that’s lacking in their effort and performance, but catch her away from the pounding music and shiny mirrors of Kitty Carter’s Dance Factory, and you’ll find a different leader than the one familiar to TV viewers. She pulls out her phone repeatedly to share photos of students, bragging on their intelligence and varied accomplishments.

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“I’ve always been ahead of my time,” she says. “I don’t worry about what people think of me as long as my moral compass is OK in my heart. My mother always said there are two things that follow you in life: your reputation and your shadow, and you can’t change either.”

Carter grew up in Lakewood, where she discovered her love of dancing at age 3. She majored in dance at SMU and cheered for the Dallas Cowboys from 1974-76. The Cowboys lost Super Bowl X to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but cheering at that game in Miami was a big win for her and her friends.

When the squad was invited to appear on TV’s The Love Boat later that year, the women were warned they all needed to lose 10 pounds. Carter balked, preferring instead to open her own studio and marry Keith, her then-boyfriend. It’s ironic that the woman known for teaching thousands of women to light up a crowd now has three sons — Keith Edward, Cassidy and Colby. To her delight, they gave her five grandchildren — all girls.

Carter has had doubters over the years — including the first time she dressed her dancers in midriff-baring costumes. During high school she crashed a brand new, baby blue Thunderbird into a school building doing 70 miles an hour. Turns out the vehicle, purchased by her car-dealer dad, hadn’t been checked for brake fluid. It took 199 stitches for plastic surgeons to close her face and months for the wounds to heal. Olivia Crutchfield, then-owner of Gingham Girl Dance Studio, reached out while she was hurting and invited her to assist as an instructor.    

“That’s when I fell in love with teaching,” she says. “I don’t have the body of a dancer. I have short legs and my turnout wasn’t great. But I’m a performer. I understand the big picture.”

Carter says dance technique can be taught and honed with practice, but sometimes those who draw the eye of the audience are simply born with something extra. The life skills she shares in class, though, are universal.

“My students learn to organize their time to fit everything in,” she says. “They learn to take initiative and not be followers. And I believe they should earn what comes to them and not expect things to be given.”

Carter isn’t a fan of the “participation trophy” mentality prevalent in today’s youth activities. Children need to develop discipline instead of expecting adults to pave their way, she says.

“Life is not one big party,” she says. “A lot of people think I’m hard, and I agree that I’m tough, but I don’t say anything I wouldn’t say to my own kids. I wouldn’t ask you to run through fire if I’m not going to run through it first. Hopefully I change somebody’s life along the way.”

Carter has tough talk for girls who join her elite teams then complain about missing social events during evening and weekend rehearsals. Achieving challenging goals requires sacrifices for the good of the team.

“I think it’s a good lesson to learn that you’re not always going to be number one,” she says. “You have to be prepared for life, and life is hard. There are kids out there on anxiety medication because they can’t keep up with the hype society and the internet put them under.”

Carter grew up riding motorbikes and barrel racing horses with her brothers and is as comfortable on a ranch as she is in a studio. Her Dance Factory hasn’t been remodeled in years, but many of her students enjoy working out in the same rooms their moms did a generation before them. Photos of college and NFL cheerleaders and Broadway dancers dot the walls of her office.

“I grew up dancing in L.A. and New York, and those studios were in the worst buildings in the world,” she says, recalling walking up eight floors when elevators weren’t working and stepping over broken bottles on the sidewalk. “New and shiny just isn’t my style.”

Carter’s goal is to teach young women they have power — power to create their own dreams and power to achieve them.

“I like strong women,” she says. “I like people who have an opinion and aren’t afraid to say it. I teach girls that working hard will pay off. You’re not out of the game if you’re in the game. I tell my girls they are talented enough to get in there and mix it up with the best; they just have to keep punching away at it. Above all, I teach them that they are worthy.”

Read more about this year’s first females.