Remember that feeling you used to get on Christmas morning, as you ran downstairs to see what presents were waiting for you under the tree? That's how I felt walking into the Juilliard Dances Repertory concert last night. The annual showcase gives Juilliard's stable of dancers a chance to tackle well-known contemporary works. And every year, new faces have big breakout moments. Hence the Christmas-tree feeling: What phenomenal young dancers will surprise us this time around?

This year's lineup includes works by Jose Limón (The Waldstein Sonata), Nacho Duato (Gnawa) and Ohad Naharin (Secus). Three very big names—and three very different styles. It was wonderful to see Maddie Swenson, one of last year's Cover Model Search finalists, come into her own in Gnawa, and to discover the delightfully odd Kyle Scheurich (who reminds me of recent Juilliard alum Billy Barry—right down to his topknot) in Secus. But I left thinking less about individual dancers and more about the remarkable range all these young artists have. To be able to transform themselves into celestial innocents in the Limón, sensual mystics in the Duato and alien flashers (!) in the Naharin—how extraordinary is that?

Zoey Anderson, Kaitlynn Edgar and Maddie Swenson are no strangers to competition. All three grew up regularly attending dance competitions—which no doubt prepared them for their trip to NYC as the 2011 Dance Spirit Cover Model Search finalists. For three jam-packed days, each dancer did her best to show why she belongs on the cover of DS, sweating through three back-to-back classes at Broadway Dance Center, rocking out at the DS photo shoot and performing a solo for the editors and voters.

While this year’s finalists all share similar backgrounds, when you see them perform, it becomes immediately apparent that each girl is very much her own dancer. Zoey’s a chameleon: One moment, she’s a sultry ballroom diva, sashaying in high heels, and the next she’s an emotionally vulnerable contemporary dancer. Kaitlynn picks up choreography in a snap and then infuses it with killer groove and alluring magnetism. Maddie’s got impeccable technique, supple feet and an approachable charm, all of which combine to make her a sparkling performer.

Zoey, Kaitlynn and Maddie made it to the finals by posting videos on dancemedia.com. Each month, viewers and editors choose their favorite Cover Model Search entries, which become the pool of semifinalists. Then, the DS editors select the top three, who are invited to NYC for the final round of competition.

The DS editors fell in love with all of the girls, so we’re glad we don’t have to pick the winner—that’s up to you! After reading about each finalist, go to dancespirit.com/ to watch Zoey, Kaitlynn and Maddie give their solo performances. Then, vote for your favorite, starting June 15.

While in NYC, the girls saw the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical Billy Elliot. When the curtain came down, Maddie, Kaitlynn and Zoey couldn't stop gushing about the talented cast!

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.”

Fast Facts

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.”

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