Leap of Faith: Leaving Your Comfort Zone for Summer Study

December 16, 2010

As a serious dancer, it’s easy to let your favorite genre become your identity, whether you’re a contemporary queen, tapper, comp kid or ballerina. Yet it’s no coincidence that shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” reward well-rounded dancers; after all, breaking out of the mold often enables you to reach your full potential. Summer study programs provide the perfect opportunity to do just that. So consider trying something different this summer—you might surprise yourself. Meet four dancers who pushed their limits to discover their own unlimited potential.

The Rockette Experience

Imagine a Latin dancer and a Rockette standing next to each other—it’s like fire and ice. Latin dance is all about fast footwork and flair, while the Rockette kickline is known for its rigid precision and uniformity. So why would Ashlé Dawson, a Latin dancer, want to check out The Rockette Experience, a daylong workshop with the legendary dance group? “Every young girl thinks at some point, ‘Maybe I could be a Rockette!’ ” Ashlé says.

So she decided to attend. The day began with a two-hour master class in one of the Radio City Music Hall rehearsal studios, where she learned tap and jazz choreography from the Radio City Christmas Spectacular plus a Rockette audition routine; a mock audition and tour of Radio City followed. “It was a great opportunity to have access to the Rockettes, and it was so neat to watch their performances later and say, ‘I learned that!’ ” Ashlé says.

But learning the Rockette style didn’t come without its share of challenges. “Everyone’s hands had to be completely the same way, which was a struggle because I like to accentuate everything,” she says. “It’s nowhere near as easy as it looks.”

Ashlé’s efforts paid off and she was asked to assist on the Experience the next two years. The third year, she scored a coveted Rockette audition but ended up having to miss it after being picked for the first season of “SYTYCD.” (She placed fourth!) Since then, she’s danced everywhere from the Latin Grammys to “American Idol,” but Ashlé still has one big goal: Broadway. “There’s magic on Broadway, and getting to work with the Rockettes put me in that mentality,” she says.

New York City Dance Alliance Summer Dance Intensive

Growing up with a dance teacher mom usually means attending lots of competitions and conventions, and Dennis Davis was no exception. “I’ve been dancing since I was little—I just fell into it,” he laughs. And Dennis was a natural: As a high school sophomore, he earned the Triple Threat Award at New York City Dance Alliance and was subsequently offered a spot at the convention’s annual summer intensive. “The idea of going to NYC by myself for a few weeks was scary,” Dennis remembers. But he couldn’t refuse the chance to work with faculty including Joey Dowling, Lauren Adams and Jason Parsons, and soon he was en route from Michigan to the Big Apple.

What lay ahead resembled dance boot camp. Every day of the two-week intensive began at 7 am and was packed with classes in ballet, lyrical, jazz, hip hop, samba, partnering, modern and more. For Dennis, it was the intensity of the ballet curriculum that resulted in a bit of culture shock: “I didn’t start training seriously in ballet until age 11, and I’d only taken one class a week. Having ballet every day, first thing in the morning, was a big adjustment,” says Dennis, who ended up doing the intensive two years in a row. “It was definitely the most challenging part for me. It was also way more intense than a regular convention, as the classes are smaller and the teachers can really see you and give corrections.”

Also stretching Dennis beyond his comfort zone were the program’s vocal requirements. Though he’d participated in choir at school, he’d never sung solo, so doing it on his audition tape and at the intensive was intimidating. “I went in the room by myself, stood in front of Joe Lanteri [executive director of NYCDA] and sang for him,” recalls Dennis, who sang 16 bars of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But Dennis pushed through the fear, and ended up joining show choir upon his return to school.

Now a freshman in the dance program at Point Park University, Dennis marvels at how much his NYCDA experience prepared him for college. (He hadn’t even heard of the school until he went to the intensive!) Today several intensive alums are his classmates, and Dennis is showing off his newfound ballet prowess as a member of Point Park’s Youth America Grand Prix competition group. “I’ve gone from my little hometown studio in Michigan to one of the top dance schools in the country,” says Dennis happily.

Jacob’s Pillow

As a diehard hoofer, Caleb Teicher always had a laser-like focus on the tap world. “I never intended to go into other dance styles,” says Caleb, who started tapping at age 10. “So when I heard Jacob’s Pillow was going to have a tap program, I knew it was perfect for me.” When auditions were held in NYC, Caleb was front and center—and when they were over, he stuck around to audition for the Jazz/Musical Theatre program as well.

For that audition, Caleb had to dance and sing—a prospect that “terrified” him—but he couldn’t help being captivated by the possibilities. Caleb had to wait several months to find out his fate, but the wait was worth it: He was accepted to both programs!

After completing the tap program in early July, Caleb returned in August for Jazz/Musical Theatre. The three weeks that followed were filled with singing, acting and dance classes. “It was everything I’d never tried before,” Caleb says. When not taking class—which he did for up to 12 hours daily—Caleb ushered the nightly dance shows featuring performers like Trey McIntyre Project, Kyle Abraham and Camille A. Brown. Not only did the work afford him a glimpse into the workings of the festival, he also got access to these dance tastemakers. “I remember roasting marshmallows with Camille and talking about her work,” Caleb says. “It was much closer than I ever would have gotten to any of these choreographers.”

Caleb also performed on the “Inside/Out” stage, an outdoor setting that attracted hundreds of spectators nightly. There he overcame his singing fears to do an onstage solo during the second week of the program. “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience—the atmosphere the festival creates is unlike anything else in the world,” Caleb says.

A recent high school graduate, Caleb’s now in NYC taking up to five dance classes daily in everything from Horton technique to flamenco. “I no longer train just in tap—I try everything,” he says. “Because of The Pillow, I’m not afraid to do that.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet School

Ever since she was 6 years old, Megan Skalla has been turning heads at conventions like JUMP, West Coast Dance Explosion and New York City Dance Alliance. So what’s a comp kid to do when she gets bitten by the ballet bug? For Megan, it meant auditioning for the six-week summer study program at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. “My teacher told me about the camp,” says Megan, who studies at Barlow Arts Conservatory and The Dance Club in Utah. “I was shocked she thought I could get in, but she pushed me and made me believe I could do it.”

At the intensive, Megan studied pointe, ballet, jazz, modern and character six days a week, and took weekly field trips to baseball games and local landmarks. Classes with Le Yin, then a principal dancer with PNB, were her favorite part. “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so excited to attend his classes,” she says.

Megan also relished the chance to observe company rehearsals. “It was amazing to see how good they are and how talented we can become,” Megan says. “I grew so much as an artist, and being there made me realize I can do anything I set my mind to.” Among those new goals? A spot with a professional ballet company. To get there, she’s now training before school as early as 5:30 am and taking private lessons with former Rocky Mountain Ballet principal Jacki Ford and former Indianapolis Ballet Theatre ballet mistress Yi-Qi Cheng. Adds Megan, “I gained a greater understanding of how much I need to train to someday be in a company—it would be a dream come true!”