Out-of-this-world feet, magnetic stage presence, astonishing control: 19-year-old Maddie Swenson has gifts that should inspire all kinds of envy. The problem is, she’s just so adorable. Case in point: Half the time she looks like she can’t quite believe how talented she is. When she executes a flawless développé à la seconde, her wide eyes ask, Is that my leg, up by my ear? No way! Or, after blazing through a jazz routine, she’ll crack up, unable to come to terms with the fact that yes, that was her out there, killing it. If you feel any lingering twinges of jealousy, just wait until she flashes her beyond-contagious smile. (“But it took three years of braces!” she groans. “They called me Punky the Beaver all through elementary school.”) Yup—there’s no way not to love this girl.
The rising Juilliard sophomore is an alum of Northland School of Dance in her hometown of Champlin, MN. She was one of those competition kids who could easily have been a professional-track ballet dancer, but she felt more at home in jazz and musical theater classes. “I loved anything where I could be silly and fun,” she says, “and bonus points if I could make people laugh.” Not that she took her training lightly. At 16, realizing that she needed to bump her technique up a notch, she enrolled at the prestigious St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists—a not-so-convenient two-hour bus ride away from home—while continuing to dance at Northland. Thanks in part to the change, Maddie had a banner senior year: She was first runner-up for Senior Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals and then earned a coveted spot at Juilliard.
Maddie has been absorbing Juilliard’s diverse dance offerings like a sponge. During her freshman year alone, she rehearsed new pieces by third-year students, worked with guest choreographer Matthew Neenan and understudied Eliot Feld’s Skara Brae for the school’s spring dance concert—all on top of her rigorous daily class schedule. “It was a big transition for me to go from a jazz-focused competition studio to this place where everyone’s been doing modern and ballet their whole lives. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nerve-wracking,” she says. “But it’s been healthy for me. It’s really broadened my horizons. And I still can’t quite believe that I get to dance all day, every day!”
After Juilliard, Maddie hopes to dance on Broadway—or to follow in idol Joey Dowling’s footsteps and become a Radio City Rockette, fulfilling a lifelong dream. “But really,” she says, “as long as I’m out there performing, I know I’ll be happy.”
Birthday: December 25, 1991. She’s a Christmas baby!
Dance crush: New York City Dance Alliance executive director Joe Lanteri. “There’s something about him that makes me dance bigger. He knows so much, and he’s willing to share it all.”
Three words that describe your dance style: Expressive, energized, effortless. “Apparently I like the ‘e’s.”
Non-dance hobby: “I love designing clothes, especially dresses. My older sister and I want to run our own clothing business someday.”
Secret talent: “I have this weird thing—don’t judge—where I can make my ‘innie’ belly button an ‘outie.’ ”
Favorite food: “Anything my Grandma and Grandpa cook—especially Grandma’s heart-shaped waffles, and Grandpa’s baked carrots. He grows the carrots in his own garden.”
Do you have a boyfriend? “I do. We just celebrated our four-year anniversary! He’s a dancer from my hometown, and we’ve been dance partners since we were 10.”
What People are Saying About Maddie
Corrie Rolf Dunn, Maddie’s Teacher at Northland School of Dance: “She’s a very technical dancer—absolutely flawless technique—and her passion comes out in her dancing. She has always been a really hard worker. Maddie was in the studio seven days a week, and not just taking advanced classes. She’d take beginning classes, too, just to go over the basics. She never felt like she was too good to learn. She was also such an inspiration to our younger kids. When she left Minnesota, she was definitely missed.”
DS photographer Erin Baiano: “I was really taken with Maddie’s range. She’s got a beautiful facility and she can do everything from ballet to hip hop. She has meticulous lines—and those feet! One of her most intriguing qualities is what’s going on inside, just beneath the surface. She seemed quiet, but once she started moving she was electric.”
Joanna Numata, street jazz and hip-hop teacher at Broadway Dance Center: “She looks like she’s trained, but she has to let go of that when she’s taking hip hop. It’s really amazing when people have training because it helps them with everything. Use it when you need to and then let it go when you don’t.”
Photos by Erin Baiano