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

Latest Posts

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

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.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

All the Hollywood and Broadway Musical Moments to Look for in “Schmigadoon!”

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.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

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."

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search