Project 21 dancers (from left) Selena Hamilton, Gracyn French, and Dyllan Blackburn (Photo by Quinn Wharton; hair and makeup throughout by Angela Huff for Mark Edward Inc.)

How Project 21 Is Shaping the Next Generation of Competition-Dance Standouts

"I wish I had a better story about the name," says Molly Long, founder of the Orange County, CA–based dance studio Project 21. In truth, it's a play on the fact that she was born on the twenty-first of August, and 21 is her favorite number. "I was away on a teaching tour, the audition announcement was going live on Instagram the next day, and I desperately needed a name. Project 21 was just the least cheesy of the options I thought of!"

The fact that fans might expect the name to have some profound meaning speaks to the near-mythic status Project 21 has achieved on the competition and convention scene since its founding in 2014. Long's dancers are all wholly individual, yet jell seamlessly as a group, and are consistently snagging top prizes everywhere on the circuit. Each season brings a slew of new accolades, high-caliber faculty, and legions of devoted followers.

The industry has taken notice of the studio's unique ethos. "Molly gets through to her dancers in a special way, and they have this incomparable level of commitment to their craft as a result," says dancer and choreographer Billy Bell, who's worked closely with Long and her dancers. "That's what sets them apart—it's like a little dose of magic."

"Never Own a Dance Studio"

As the daughter of a dance teacher, Long spent the better part of her childhood in the studio. Her mom owned California Dance Academy, also located in Orange County, which later merged with another studio to become Dance Precisions, where the bulk of Long's childhood training took place. "My mom taught the minis, my aunt Leslie handled the juniors, and, when I turned 16, I also started working at the studio," Long says. "I was never the best dancer when I was younger, but I absolutely loved being there—it felt like home." She gradually took over choreographing for the minis, and saw instant competition success with a number of routines, including "My Boyfriend's Back," which featured a then seven-year-old Autumn Miller, and earned national titles at Hall of Fame Nationals and Showbiz Nationals in 2009.

After six years teaching and choreographing at Dance Precisions, Long needed a change. "I just remember clearly realizing that I needed to do my own thing," Long says. "Growing up, my mom constantly said to me, 'Never own a dance studio, it's the worst job ever' "—she laughs at the memory—"but starting a company felt like the right move for that moment in my life." Project 21 began its inaugural season in 2015.

Photo by Quinn Wharton

Finding Her Footing

Long sums up the early days of Project 21 with one word: scary. "There were so many little things you don't initially think about, like billing, securing studio space, administrative tasks," she says. But beyond that, two larger questions loomed: What kind of dance teacher did she want to be, and what did she want Project 21 to represent? "I had a tendency to crowdsource opinions during those first few seasons, and I got lost in what everyone else had to say about running this company," she remembers.

Gradually, Long's confidence grew, and her vision for a company chock-full of driven, diverse, and versatile dancers began to take shape. Soon, Project 21's group and solo entries (often choreographed by Long) were earning raves at competitions, and her students were making waves in convention classes. "I noticed Project 21 dancers Selena Hamilton and Dyllan Blackburn in class at Radix pretty early on, because they were clearly taking responsibility for their own training," Bell says, "and that's really rare to see. Molly has this amazing way of creating drive without feeling like a dictator—people just want to work with and for her."

The hallmark of a Project 21 dancer is their work ethic. "It's my biggest thing," Long says. "I want my kids to walk out of class feeling like they've done everything in their power to improve that day." Long also encourages her dancers to express their opinions—and she really listens to them. "I try to nurture what they like and what they're interested in, because I think it's great when they're outspoken," she says.

Long (far right) with her dancers. (Photo by Quinn Wharton)

A Fully-Formed Identity

Project 21 now feels like a family, and Long has put that sense of camaraderie on display in some of her viral-hit group routines, including "One Night in Bangkok" (Radix's 2019 Best in Show winner) and "Bohemian Rhapsody" (which has nearly one million views on YouTube). "All of Molly's dancers are great soloists, but they work unbelievably well as a group," Bell says. "They understand how to share this energy onstage, and it's definitely their defining quality."

That cohesive energy has attracted an impressive crew of guest choreographers. Many of them come to Project 21 to set pieces after working with the dancers at conventions over the years. (That route brought Bell and Teddy Forance to the studio in 2020.) Others discover the studio thanks to its competition and social media reputation, like Madison Hicks, who reached out to Long early last year and is now on faculty at Project 21. A Juilliard graduate and former member of L.A. Dance Project, Hicks, who is currently enrolled in the graduate dance program at CalArts, was blown away by everything Long and the students had to offer. "It's so beyond a studio," she says. "Molly is an incredible businesswoman, role model, and teacher. She makes sure that everyone who is at Project 21 wants to be there, and I think our small size and unity are what set us apart."

A Foundation for the Future

While Project 21 has already experienced a ton of success, Long knows there's always room to grow. "I'd love to build a stronger technical program going forward," she says, "and while I'm not sure if expansion is in the cards yet, it would certainly be nice—I always dreamed of having a huge studio." Beyond that, Long's unwavering goal is to mold her kids into the most respectful, responsible, and hard-working dancers they can be. "We're not always going to win, and that's okay," she says, "because my kids know that at the end of the day, they have the work ethic to get them where they want to be."

Meet Three of Project 21's Standout Stars

Dyllan Blackburn

Photo by Quinn Wharton

You'd be hard-pressed to find a dancer as calm, cool, and collected as 14-year-old Dyllan Blackburn, who has snagged top prizes at Radix, 24Seven, JUMP, and NUVO. "Dyllan is all lines, perfection, and details," says Molly Long. "The way she can sit in these pockets of musicality while performing is otherworldly." Dyllan has been with Project 21 since the beginning, and credits Long for transforming her into the dancer she is today. "Molly really pushes us and prepares us for the future," she says. Looking ahead, Dyllan hopes to clinch the Female Best Dancer title at The Dance Awards at least once in her career: "I've been first runner-up, which was great, but I would love to win!"

Fast Facts

Birthday: May 2, 2006

Her dancing in three words: Precise, technical, and committed

Dance bag must-haves: Tiger Balm, Advil, and deodorant

Pre-performance rituals or superstitions: "My mom has to wear black when I compete my solo, and before each performance, I do the sign of the cross like a million times!"

Favorite Project 21 group routine: "One Night in Bangkok"

Gracyn French

Photo by Quinn Wharton

Eleven-year-old Gracyn French is the epitome of an old soul. "She was born with this incredible confidence, and the way she's able to captivate an audience is unreal," says Long. Since joining Project 21 in 2017, Gracyn has earned accolade after accolade: In 2019, she capped off a banner year by winning Mini Female Best Dancer at The Dance Awards. When she's not touring with NUVO and 24Seven on the weekends, she's working on polishing her technique and improv skills in weekly classes with Molly and Madison. As for what the future holds? "I'd love to be on Broadway one day!" she says.

Fast Facts

Birthday: November 28, 2008

Non-dance hobbies: "Swimming with my sisters and vlogging."

Dance bag must-haves: Icy Hot, and shoes for tap, ballroom, and ballet

Favorite Project 21 group routine: "Grease Is the Word"

Pre-performance rituals or superstitions: "When I'm alone backstage, I just repeat 'You've got this, go out there and do your best' to myself."

Selena Hamilton

Photo by Quinn Wharton

Is there anything supremely versatile 15-year-old Selena Hamilton can't do? "She's my variety girl, and her strength and natural talent set her apart," says Long. "Molly holds us accountable," says Selena, who's been with Project 21 from its first days. "She knows if we're not working as hard as we can be, and she knows how to bring out the best in all of her dancers." Selena's versatility, magnetic stage presence, and commitment in the studio have catapulted her to the title of Radix Core Performer in both the Junior and Teen categories. Beyond the competition scene, she dreams of dancing for Katy Perry or Beyoncé someday.

Fast Facts

Birthday: August 26, 2004

Favorite Project 21 group routines: "Dance Like Your Daddy" and "One Night in Bangkok"

Favorite Project 21 memory: "After every 24Seven convention, we all go to Denny's for waffles."

Her dancing in three words: Athletic, powerful, clean

Non-dance hobbies: Online shopping, TikTok, and baking cakes

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