Photo by Erin Baiano

Darriel Johnakin is Your 2019 Cover Model Search Winner!

From the moment we saw Darriel Johnakin flash a million-watt smile while nailing a textbook tilt at her Cover Model Search photo shoot this spring, we knew she'd go far in the dance world. Now, having crossed "Dance Spirit Cover Model Search winner" off her bucket list, Darriel's back to doing what she does best: logging long hours in the studio, polishing her technique, applying her teachers' corrections, and trying to be a little bit better than she was yesterday.


Darriel brought this attitude with her to NYC. We were blown away by her humility, especially as we watched her shine in class at Broadway Dance Center. Her movements were seamless, her extensions and jumps jaw-dropping, her focus unparalleled. And as thousands of votes and social media shares poured in during the contest, it became clear that Darriel's work ethic was super-inspirational to her peers, as well.

Now a sophomore in Pace University's commercial dance program, Darriel caught us up on her whirlwind summer—and what's next.

What have you been up to since your trip to NYC?

In addition to officially finishing my freshman year of college, I had the opportunity to perform at the Coretta Scott King Book Awards with fellow Pace commercial program dancers. I also had the chance to dance in a film choreographed by Martha Nichols, which premieres soon, so stay tuned! I was in NYC during New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, where I volunteered at the Pace recruitment booth during the college fair. I wrapped up my summer at Contemporary Now, an intensive created by the amazing Jenn Freeman, with Peter Chu on faculty.

Photo by Erin Baiano

What was your favorite part of the Cover Model Search?

I absolutely loved meeting the other finalists, experiencing a professional photo shoot, and meeting the super-fun Dance Spirit staff.

What was your voting campaign strategy?

Post, post, post! I posted on Instagram every day to remind people to vote. I also made pins, and it was fun to see people walking around town wearing them.

What are you looking forward to this year?

I'm so excited to be a sophomore and be with my Pace family! I really can't wait to see what new opportunities arise this year.

What advice do you have for future Cover Model Search finalists?

Just try to live in the moment, make tons of new friends, and always smile!

Photo by Erin Baiano

Dear readers,

This has been an amazing opportunity and I can't thank you all enough. First, to the staff at Dance Spirit for selecting me as a Cover Model Search finalist: You all are really genuine and loving people. Second, to my partners in this journey, Emma and Diego: I'm hoping for a lifetime of friendship. Thanks to everyone who supported me by voting, sharing, and just getting the word out—my friends, my family, and strangers, too. Lastly, thanks to my mom, the No. 1 dance mom and cheerleader, for campaigning for me.

Love you guys,
Dari

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Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

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In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of about two dozen dancers got the rare opportunity to work on an upcoming Apple TV+ series—one devoted entirely to celebrating, and spoofing, classic 1940s and '50s musicals from the Great White Way and Hollywood. "Schmigadoon!", which premiered on AppleTV+ July 16, stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get stuck inside a musical and must find true love in order to leave. The show features a star-studded Broadway cast, including Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski and Dove Cameron, and is chock-full of dancing courtesy of series choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.

"The adrenaline was pretty exciting, being able to create during the pandemic," says Gattelli. "I felt like we were representing all performers at that point. There were so many who wanted to be working during the pandemic, so I really tried to embrace this opportunity for all of them."

Gattelli says it was a dream come true to pay tribute to the dance geniuses that preceded him, like Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Onna White and Jerome Robbins, in his choreography. Each number shows off a "little dusting" of their work.

Dance Spirit spoke with Gattelli about all the triumphs and tribulations of choreographing in a pandemic, and got an inside look at specific homages to look out for.

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Shouldering the Load: What kind of dance bag should dancers use?

Walk into any dance convention, audition or class, and you'll see a vast variety of dance bags lining the walls. But can the style of bag you use (and how you wear it) have an impact on your dancing?

Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

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