What does first place feel like? To answer that question, look no further than these trailblazing teams from Florida, Colorado and California: Robin Dawn Academy of Performing Arts, Michelle Latimer Dance Academy and Retter’s Academy of Dance. They’ve collected tons of awards at conventions across the country—and performed around the globe. In order to discover the secrets of their success, DS snagged an all-access pass behind the studio doors and into the lives of each competition team. Get the 411 below!
Robin Dawn Academy of Performing Arts
Where the Dance Magic Happens: Cape Coral, FL
Vital Stats: Fifty legends-in-training form the Legends Dance Company, which spans in age from 7 to 17. (Until four years ago, the Legends featured more than 100 dancers, but owner Robin Dawn says the company has really hit its winning stride since streamlining its numbers.)
You May Have Spotted Them At… Hall of Fame, West Coast Dance Explosion, Dance Masters of America, Showbiz, Starpower, Fire and Ice, Bravo and more
Big Wins: Robin’s rules state that only competition pieces that make “Top 10” status go to Nationals. During last year’s season, all of the Legends’ regional competition pieces earned at least “Top 5” rankings.
Behind Studio Doors: Now in its 33rd year, the Robin Dawn Academy of Performing Arts definitely has no shortage of tradition. At the heart of it is the Legends competition team, which has been rocking the circuit since 1979. (At some of their early events, Robin’s team competed against the Joe Michaels Studio, which featured a young Mia Michaels and her sister Dana! “I was always so inspired by Joe’s choreography,” Robin says. “He was an amazing source of advice.”)
Of course, the studio’s rich history translates into relatively high expectations for its dancers. The Legends rehearse on Mondays and Saturdays, with required jazz, tap, lyrical, ballet and tumbling classes in between. Strength and flexibility work are also a big part of the curriculum—every week, Robin leads the dancers in a “killer” 75-minute conditioning class designed for optimum performance.
Unexcused absences are an absolute no—if one happens, the swing alternate permanently takes over that person’s spot. “My teachers are very strict; dancers are not allowed to miss rehearsal,” Robin explains. “Also, we don’t give the dancers any time off after competition, even after an incredible win. There is always work to be done!” (But it’s not all work and no play—Robin will grant the occasional weekend off, as well as letting the dancers play hooky if they have a day off from school.)
Being a Legend can be pretty demanding, but team members like 14-year-old Ariel Reichenbach, now in her ninth year as a Legend, aren’t complaining. “Robin inspires us to be the best we can be,” Ariel says. “The thing that has made us so successful is that we’re a family, so we want to try our hardest for each other at competitions.”
Though the studio places a heavy focus on competition, Robin takes care to ensure that dancers keep things in perspective. “We try not to take competition to heart, but to use it as a tool to better ourselves,” she says. “Everything you do in life is a competition in different forms, so if you can learn to take rejection and do it all over again, it makes you a stronger person.”
Fun Fact: For 25 years, the company was called the Showstoppers, until a local suggested to Robin that she rename the team in honor of its long history.
Where Are They Now? The Legends’ most notable alum is none other than DS May/June 2008 cover boy Tucker Barkley, who competed for three years. This season’s “SYTYCD” Top 20 finalist Marquis Cunningham is also a former Legend. Others now dance professionally in the national tour of Wicked and act as stunt doubles in action flicks.
Click It: robindawn.com
Michelle Latimer Dance Academy
Where the Dance Magic Happens: Greenwood Village, CO
Vital Stats: The studio’s company features 75 dancers ranging in age from 5 to 19. Dancers are placed in the junior, teen elite, senior or senior elite competitive groups based on age and skill level.
You May Have Spotted Them At… West Coast Dance Explosion, L.A. Dance Magic, Co. Dance, NYC Dance Alliance, The Pulse, Starpower, Spotlight and more
Big Wins: In December, MLDA took home three of only four highly coveted “DJ Pick” Awards given at NUVO.
Behind Studio Doors: Devotion is key at MLDA—company members must commit to 20-plus hours of technique classes per week. (The training regimen includes eight hours of ballet, along with lyrical, turns, progressions, musical theater and hip hop. Talk about hard core!) According to studio owner Michelle Latimer, the company’s focus on ballet put them on the fast track to fame. “At first, our technique wasn’t great; we just did competitions to have fun and get visibility,” Michelle says. “Several years ago, we changed the whole ballet program with a new teacher and more classes. Once we started requiring more ballet, we really turned the corner competitively.”
No doubt about it—MLDA’s competitive karma has definitely turned around. The company now journeys to at least eight conventions every year, and often comes home with a long list of platinum awards, scholarships, high scores and Critics’ Choice nods.
So what is MLDA’s secret weapon for success? One smart strategy has been working with a roster of guest artists that reads like a list of star faculty at any major convention—from Travis Wall to Mia Michaels to Marty Kudelka. Sixteen-year-old Lauren Sigler says studying with artists like Brian Friedman and Jason Parsons has been one of her favorite parts of being in the company: “I’ve gotten so many opportunities that I wouldn’t get anywhere else. Michelle is very well-connected and brings in the best of the best, which brings out the best in us.”
Along with master classes, the guest artists often set comp pieces for a few lucky dancers—and the competition can be fierce. (Company members must audition against each other for the visiting choreographer.) Yet according to Lauren, it’s totally healthy competition—no “Hills”-style drama here! “It can be intense, but there are no harsh feelings,” she says. “It’s a great learning experience.”
Where Are They Now? Many MLDA company alums go from the competitive stage straight into the spotlight. Las Vegas is one city where numerous former company members have thrived, in stage shows with mega-stars like Bette Midler and Céline Dion. Alum Dana Wilson is currently in Vegas working with Wade Robson, who is choreographing magician Criss Angel’s new Cirque du Soleil show!
Click It: michellelatimerdance.com
Retter’s Academy of Dance
Where the Dance Magic Happens: Agoura Hills, CA
Vital Stats: The studio’s Rhythm Machine dance company has 55 members, ages 7 to 18. Also of note is the R&B Professional Dance Company, an 18-and-over group that prepares dancers to enter the industry. (About five percent of Rhythm Machine members go on to dance in R&B, alongside other dancers who’ve moved to L.A. to pursue careers.)
You May Have Spotted Them At... NYC Dance Alliance, Starpower, L.A. Dance Magic, NUVO, DMI and more
Big Wins: To make it in Hollywood, you’ve got to stand out from the crowd—and the competitive philosophy at L.A.-based Retter’s reflects that. “On the scene right now, it’s all about contemporary, so we like to mix it up and do something else,” says studio co-owner Linda Bernabei-Retter. This year, tap was the way that Retter’s dared to be different: “This season, we got the Critics’ Choice Award at NYC Dance Alliance in the junior and teen divisions; at a predominantly jazz convention, it was amazing to have two tap numbers win!”
Behind Studio Doors: Rhythm Machine members have lots of opportunities for exposure—on and off the competition floor. Co-owner Darryl Retter often casts members in educational dance video shoots, and Linda enlists dancers as catalog models for her costume company, Stagewear L.A. Company members also get headshots, work with high-profile guest choreographers and learn how to compile dance resumés. “We’re almost a finishing school,” Linda explains. “Rhythm Machine company members learn how professional dancers act and think. Our goal for them is longevity.”
Rhythm Machine member Chelsea Preisler, 14, says she definitely feels as if Rhythm Machine will be a good launching pad for going pro, partly because the emphasis isn’t just on the steps: “The company focuses on how dancing affects the way you live and how you can incorporate it into your future,” Chelsea says. “Miss Linda gives us real-life experiences from her own dance career that help us prepare for our dance goals.”
Along with getting ready for the “real” dance world, Rhythm Machine members spend lots of time prepping for competition. Each week, members take five required classes (two in ballet, plus jazz, tap, and turns and leaps; lyrical, hip hop and core conditioning are optional), plus they attend company rehearsals. Though technique is naturally a central focus, the Retters also emphasize stage presence.
“We’re all about entertainment value—whether you make the audience laugh or cry, you have to make them do something more than applaud,” Linda explains. “If you can make an audience or an adjudicator remember your performance, something very special has taken place. For a moment, you stopped time—and that’s always our goal: to stop time!”
Fun Fact: As a good-luck ritual at competition, the Rhythm Machine members form an “energy circle” to focus before each performance.
Where Are They Now? Rhythm Machine alum Dameka Hayes is a former Laker Girl who has performed in L.A. productions of The Lion King and The Color Purple, while alum Lindsay Angier appeared in a print ad for “SYTYCD.”
Click It: retterworld.com
Photo: OPM Photography