Harrison County

A dedicated dancer with big dreams, family remembers Jenna Robinson, 17

Courtesy Robinson family 
 Jenna Robinson, 17, died April 4, 2016 after battlling epilepsy for seven years.
Courtesy Robinson family Jenna Robinson, 17, died April 4, 2016 after battlling epilepsy for seven years.

GULFPORT -- Even on days when she had no lessons to attend, Jenna Robinson could still be found at her mother's dance studio, Island School of Performing Arts.

"She wouldn't have class, but she would say, 'Mom, I have to go.' She would not have it," said Toni Robinson, Jenna's mother.

"I'm a homebody, but Jenna made me go. Jenna didn't want to be home. She was home in the morning, she did her school work, she'd get ready, and we'd go. That studio is her life."

Jenna's father, Paul Robinson, agreed with his wife.

"She could not wait to get out of here and get to that dance studio," he said.

The students at ISPA -- particularly the younger dancers who looked to Jenna for extra help or advice -- will miss seeing her curly red hair and sweet smiles in classes, her parents said.

Loss too soon

Jenna, 17, died peacefully at home on Monday, April 4, after having an epileptic seizure. The Robinsons, who said students at the dance school are taking Jenna's death especially hard, said grief counselors will be at ISPA on Monday if anybody wants to talk.

Jenna, the youngest of three girls, was nicknamed the "sweet one" by her father at a young age.

"She just had a sweet, sweet personality," Toni Robinson said. "She was a little character. She loved to play jokes from day one."

The Robinsons found out about Jenna's condition in January 2006 after she had a seizure at Our Lady of Fatima Elementary in Biloxi.

"We ended up at Women's and Children's Hospital (in Mobile) for a week," Paul Robinson said. He said doctors diagnosed Jenna with epilepsy and said they were triggered from Post-Hurricane Katrina traumatic stress. The family lived on the Biloxi Back Bay at the time of the storm, and their home was flooded with 7 feet of water and sustained significant wind damage. Paul Robinson said at the time of Jenna's seizure, they were working on refurbishing the home. The family later moved to D'Iberville.

Seizures are hard to control, but the Robinsons said it did not damper Jenna's spirits or slow her down. She danced on and off but got serious in 2009 when her mother purchased ISPA. Her sister, Casey Hild, is a lead instructor at the school.

As Jenna progressed, her seizures began causing issues, although she was very private about her condition.

Loved to dance

"She loved, loved, loved to dance," Paul Robinson said. "And she loved children. She loved to act and sing. She had aspirations of doing those things, but epilepsy took over. She started amending her career options a little bit and looking for other options like choreography ... she was just trying to find her place."

Toni Ronbinson said Jenna began practicing the modern dance style more intently because she found a place for epilepsy within her choreographed performances.

"She would have an absent seizure," Toni said. "To the normal person, it would seem like somebody daydreaming anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds. During that time, Jenna would lose track of all time. You're almost semi-conscious. You don't know what's taking place.

"With modern and improv dance, even if she would stop on stage, she would be the only one who knew the choreography on stage."

A new rhythm

But as the epilepsy progressed, Jenna had to find the beat to a new rhythm. And she did. Jenna graduated from high school through an online program a year-and-a-half early. She pursued a degree a business management.

During that time, Toni offered Jenna a position managing birthday parties and events and the studio.

And that became her passion.

Jenna restructured the pricing grid herself. She called it ISPA Birthdays and Events.

"She treated it like a true business," Toni Robinson said. "Jenna put out the Facebook page. She created the e-mail. She took care of scheduling and took care of clients. She made sure actors who were playing the parts were well-rehearsed and never came out of character."

Jenna, too, would dress in character for birthday parties. The crowd favorite was when she dressed as Ana from the Disney film "Frozen."

Artistic sisters

The Robinson sisters are all three artistic, and it's something Paul and Toni admired and encouraged. Casey and Jenna flourished in dance, and their daughter Michelle Robinson does creative work in her role at Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company. The Robinsons said they were always proud of Jenna for living life to the fullest despite dealing with a devastating condition.

"It (dance) totally became her thing. The whole performing arts genre became her passion," Paul Robinson said. "We were thrilled. When you see genuine passion in your children, it's just an amazing thing."

A legacy

Jenna was laid to rest on Saturday, and her parents have started a Jenna Robinson Scholarship Fund at Hancock Bank. They hope to award money each year to a dancer in need.

The Robinsons also hope to raise awareness of epilepsy and soon raise funds to build a performing arts center in Jenna's name.

"That is our new purpose in this," Toni Robinson said.

Toni Robinson also asks that anybody living with epilepsy should not hesitate to reach out to her on Facebook for support.

"It's a horrific disease." she said. "If you've just gotten diagnosed, it can be totally mind-boggling. Until you've lived through it, you have absolutely no idea."