We’re back with our fourth annual Cover Model Search competition sponsored by Discount Dance Supply! This contest is about finding the hottest new teen dancer, chosen by you! We’ve had some exciting changes this year. Instead of submitting your videos by snail mail (which is so 2008), you posted them on dancemedia.com. The winners of our monthly CMS Editors’ Choice and Viewers’ Choice awards became our pool of semifinalists. Then we narrowed the group down to just three.
Meet Ida Saki, Nicole Knudson and Kamille Upshaw! They’re all primarily contemporary dancers (but don’t be surprised if they bust out hip-hop high-tops or a pair of pointe shoes). We brought them to NYC back in April. They took classes at Broadway Dance Center, saw In the Heights, met with Clear Talent Group agent Anastasia Miller and posed for a photo shoot!
So how are you going to choose your favorite cover girl? Read on for their stories and go to dancespirit.com/ to see the solo videos they created for our site. Voting starts June 22!
Ida Saki still doesn’t know who submitted her solo video Let It Be on dancemedia.com. She only found out about it after a friend texted her, “Congratulations Miss Editors’ Choice!” So she was floored when we called her in February to tell her she was a Cover Model Search finalist.
“My heart stopped, and I was pretty much in tears,” Ida admits. After meeting this 17-year-old from Plano, TX, we knew that her reaction was completely true to character: genuine and gracious.
This is because Ida has a unique perspective on just how lucky she is. Her parents immigrated to the US from Iran, and they have taught Ida and her two brothers to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way. Thanks to their advice, Ida soaks up everything around her (she’s called a sponge), from dance steps to guidance.
“My mom always wanted to dance,” Ida says, “but they don’t have that in Iran. So I partly dance for her. I hope as a CMS finalist, I will inspire other dancers to feel blessed that they are able to do what they do.”
And dance is definitely something that Ida can do! Her movements are full-bodied and radiate buoyant energy. She dances with her heart on her sleeve, and her spirit bursts from every leap and twist. You can’t help but stare at her bold strides and gorgeous extensions. Ida has such stage presence that you watch her—even if she’s in the back of the room.
Ida got turned on to dance in fifth grade when she performed a hip-hop routine with a group of her girlfriends at a local talent show. Then she went to watch her friend in Dance Industry’s competition team recital. She was hooked. She joined the team in sixth grade and began training in every style. In ninth grade her dance skills reached a new level when co-company director Jessica Hendricks joined Dance Industry’s staff. “Jessica taught us that dance is more than just tricks—it’s an art of expression,” Ida says.
Ida currently considers dance her primary language and loves to communicate with movement. But dance was especially helpful for Ida post September 11th. “Because I’m Middle Eastern, people at school made comments like, ‘Your parents are probably carrying a bomb’ and called me ‘Ida Al Qaeda.’ I would just laugh it off and pretend it didn’t bother me. Then I got to dance and just moved it out.”
Ida is currently enrolled in Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and is just as dedicated to her schoolwork as she is to her dance training (she has a near-perfect GPA and will be taking six Advanced Placement classes next year!). She hopes to go to college or a conservatory to get a dual degree in business and dance. After that, she dreams of joining a company like Complexions, Alonzo King’s LINES
Ballet or Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
As she continues to grace stages, she’ll hopefully move many more dancers like the anonymous fan who helped land her a spot as a CMS finalist.
Heads turn when Nicole Knudson first walks into the hotel lobby in NYC. It’s hard not to stare at her magnificent load of dark chocolate curls, metallic gold UGG boots and confident swagger. She looks more like an L.A. pop star, likely to be photographed by Us Weekly, than a small-town girl from North Ogden, UT.
Underneath the striking good looks is an incredibly determined 17-year-old dancer who will just as easily grab your eye in the dance studio with her powerful, sassy movement. She certainly caught the attention of the New York City Dance Alliance judges in 2008, when she won Teen Outstanding Dancer for her “Word Up” solo. Nicole began dancing when she was 3 years old. She followed in the footsteps of her older sister Raquel, a.k.a. Rocky, a former dancer who appeared in all three High School Musicals and now works as a stage-makeup artist. Nicole performed her first competition solo at age 5 to Tina Turner’s “Rolling on the River” in sequined bell-bottom pants. She’s done a solo every year since.
She currently dances at Sheryl Dowling’s studio, The Dance Club, in Orem, UT, and credits the studio for honing her technique by upping her ballet training. But getting there isn’t easy—The Dance Club is an hour and a half away from her house! Every day she attends two classes at school (the rest of her work is done through online courses), travels three hours total via car with her mom and dances up to seven. Her weekends are spent touring with NYCDA, assisting their renowned teachers, including Jason Parsons and Joe Lanteri.
The results of her hard work and dedication have produced a technically proficient dancer recognized as one of the top performers in her age bracket. Nicole was named “Best Dancer in Utah” by the Best of State awards. But before she became queen bee of the Utah and convention scenes, she admits she felt like a typical insecure teenager.
“When I’m out in the real world, I strut in my high heels,” Nicole says. “But in dance, I’m always like, ‘What if I’m not good enough?’ And it’s really played mind games with me. But after winning NYCDA, everything changed—how I think, move and act.” A fan of inspirational books, Nicole credits her success in part to the influence of their positive messages. Before she won at Nationals, she says she adapted this mantra: “I’m going to go there, show them who I am and win!”
Aside from dancing, Nicole loves anything artsy, like fashion, interior design and modeling (she’s currently signed with Pulse agency). She’s also a health nut. “I could spend an entire day in Whole Foods!” Nicole says. Every night before bed, she does her own Pilates-inspired exercise routine.
What’s Nicole’s big plan? “In two years I would love to go on tour with an artist or land a Broadway show, because I’d love being on stage in front of a live crowd every night,” she says. “In five years, I want to establish a side career as a Pilates instructor and motivational speaker. In 15 years, I hope to get into choreographing and directing dance shows.” And if Nicole keeps up her “I think I can” mantra, she might just accomplish all of that.
Derek Mitchell dropped to the floor and pumped his fist with enthusiasm. “Yes! That was fantastic!” he cried to his advanced lyrical class at Broadway Dance Center. Kamille Upshaw, a 19-year-old Juilliard incoming junior, had just demonstrated his combo in front of the class. “You owned every move,” he said with seriousness. “You. Will. Work.”
Those three words are something every dancer dreams of being told. After hearing them, Kamille modestly beamed back at him and joined the rest of the students. The praise was well deserved. She performed his combo flawlessly—breathing at the right moments, in her signature liquidy-smooth style, emoting without letting it outshine her technique. Before Mitchell singled her out, she was quietly learning (and mastering!) the steps in the corner. Kamille is the perfect example of an unassuming star.
Prior to moving to NYC to attend The Juilliard School, Kamille trained in Maryland (she grew up in Upper Marlboro, MD). She honed her technique at Pizzaz Studio and C&C Dance Company before then switching to Spotlight Studio of Dance, both competition studios. For high school, she scored a spot at the Baltimore School for the Arts (the school Step Up is based on!). She’s also a member of the Pretty Girls of Dance (check out our February fashion shoot).
Kamille credits her success to the support of her parents, Gregory and Karyn, and brother, Brandon. Her mother, a former dancer, is thrilled to have a daughter invested in something they both cherish. Her father calls himself Kamille’s manager and has even developed a pretend (one-client) agency called Upstart (a play on the last name Upshaw). “It makes me feel good having people so close to me by my side through everything,” Kamille says.
Though Mitchell took a strong liking to Kamille, winning teachers over hasn’t always been so easy for her. Kamille’s ability to pick up choreography quickly both helps her (she’s an audition pro!) and hurts her. Teachers often misinterpret how effortlessly she dances as not being committed to the movement or class. “I sometimes offend teachers if they don’t ‘get’ me,” Kamille explains. But once they learn her work process, they understand.
But before Kamille could worry about judgment from her teachers, she had to stop judging herself. During her first two years of high school, she became overly critical of her dancing. “I never thought anything was good enough,” Kamille says. “If I messed up once, I’d have to start over. It set me up for failure because I wasn’t looking at the things that were getting better, only the things that weren’t.” With the help of Spotlight Hughson-Studio teacher Wyndee Hughson-McGovern, Kamille let go of her self-criticism habit. McGovern helped Kamille to start looking at the big picture and focusing on improvement.
Now Kamille sees a completely different dancer when she looks in the studio mirror. In fact, she even admits to having a diva side (though not quite as intense as Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce). She describes her inner diva as the place where her confidence comes from. “It’s gotten me really far,” she explains. “I’m not afraid to go for things. Like, if there is a big jumping combo in class, I will tell myself I can jump as high as the guys.”
It’s that positive attitude that will help Kamille reach her dreams of dancing with a company. “Though many people have told me that I’d be a good fit at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (and I’d be thrilled to make it!), I want to do something unexpected—like join Nederlands Dans Theater,” Kamille says. And if Mitchell’s prophecy comes true, a professional career is right around the corner.
Photos by Erin Baiano