What's Up With Utah?
On Season 3 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” thousands of dancers from across the country auditioned for a coveted spot on the show. Three of the eventual Top 20 were from the state of Utah, and one, Sabra Johnson, was voted America’s Favorite Dancer. The next season, Salt Lake City (Utah’s capital) was added to the show’s audition stops.
Two years earlier, in 2005, director/choreographer Kenny Ortega selected Salt Lake City as the location for the Disney Channel’s soon-to-be-wildly-successful High School Musical franchise. In 2007, Utah-native Julianne Hough, a professional on “Dancing with the Stars,” won back-to-back championships on the show. Her brother, Derek Hough, also joined the “DWTS” pro roster and later became a two-time champion as well. Utahns Chelsie Hightower, Allison Holker, Joey Dowling and Randi Evans soon became household names too, thanks to their roles on TV’s popular dance shows.
Savvy insiders have known all along that Utah is a breeding ground for dance talent—Ballet West, Utah’s professional ballet company, has been around since 1963—but the recent rapid succession of high-profile dancers coming from Utah has put it on the map in a bigger way than ever before. Though Utah has a population of fewer than 3 million people (California has 37 million), dancers from the state regularly work beyond spots on television’s highest-rated shows and in movies. They also grace Broadway stages and join the best ballet companies in the nation. From Will Swenson’s leading role in the Hair revival on Broadway to Robert Fairchild’s promotion to principal dancer with New York City Ballet, Utah’s dancers have had a seemingly baffling degree of success.
So what exactly is up with Utah? To get some answers, DS talked to Utah-born-and-raised teachers and dancers and found that the recipe for success seems to be a combination of dedication to community, strong work ethic and exceptional training.
Top Teachers at Stellar Studios
Bonnie Story, the director of Utah’s Treehouse Dance Program and a commercial choreographer, has jobs that take her to L.A., NYC and Las Vegas. She co-choreographed the High School Musical movies and was a major contributor to Las Vegas’ latest Cirque du Soleil sensation, Viva ELVIS. Story credits committed, well-connected teachers with turning out Utah’s exceptional dancers. “I come home from L.A. and think, ‘Wow, I had better make sure the kids at home know how to do this kind of movement or handle that kind of choreography,” Story says. “I bring my experience from other cities back and teach the kids here what they need to know to be current. It’s not a leap for them to go to NYC or L.A. because they already have everything they need.”
Another studio that rightfully receives credit for producing dance stars is Kim DelGrosso’s Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, where alumni include Chelsie Hightower, Derek and Julianne Hough, Hefa Tuita, and Ashleigh and Ryan DiLello. DelGrosso encourages her students to excel in all styles, including ballroom, singing and acting, and regularly brings in professional dancers for master classes. Ballroom champion turned television dancer/choreographer Louis van Amstel, a frequent guest teacher at Center Stage, recently bought a second home near the studio after years of traveling back and forth from L.A. He believes it’s DelGrosso’s “triple threat” training method that creates such exceptional dancers. Center Stage’s success is no secret: “Agencies know that with one phone call to the studio, they can get a dancer who is trained in ballroom, lyrical and hip hop,” van Amstel says.
Utah’s studios and companies stress the importance of being well rounded, and a handful offer ballroom training in addition to the standard tap, jazz and ballet. Derryl Yeager’s Odyssey Dance Theatre, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Kandee Allen’s Dance Impressions (home to “SYTYCD” Season 3 winner Sabra Johnson), Sheryl Dowlings’ The Dance Club (home studio of Allison Holker, Mollee Gray and Joey Dowling) and Jacqueline Colledge’s Utah Regional Ballet (former school of Boston Ballet’s Whitney Jensen) all opened their doors to provide dancers with strong technical dance skills in a variety of disciplines. Dancers from these studios and companies often get their starts on the competition and convention circuit before going on to professional careers.
Another major factor in Utah’s dance success is religion: 60 percent of the population is Mormon. Mormonism encourages children to sing, dance and participate in healthy forms of entertainment. “In the Mormon religion, it’s a responsibility to use your time to develop your talents,” Story says. “I’m not suggesting that is exclusive to Mormons, but people in Utah are very family-oriented and achievement-driven.”
Today, performers in Utah—whether Mormon or not—use dance to bring people together. The annual “Art with Heart” show is a collaboration of dancers from Dance Impressions, The Dance Club and The Winner School. Over the last eight years, the studios have held the benefit performance to raise more than $200,000 for Shriners Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City to buy special equipment for patients. “After mentally calculating the enormous amount being spent on competitions, we thought, ‘Why not put on a performance and do something really special with the profits?’ ” Kandee Allen says.
Arts Appreciation and Education
It seems that everyone in Utah is dancing. Utah has a state core curriculum in dance starting at the K–12 level. At the collegiate level, dance plays a significant role on the campuses of the state’s leading universities. Utah Valley University is the only public university in America offering a degree in ballroom dance. Scott Asbell, the ballroom dance program director at UVU, says many studios in Utah teach ballroom from a young age in part because the area’s conservative, religious parents appreciate the structured environment for boys and girls to enjoy each other’s company. The Brigham Young University Ballroom Dance Company won two first-place awards at the prestigious Blackpool Championships in England this year. The University of Utah contributes to the strong dance education environment as well, with its top-ranked modern dance major.
From ballet stages to commercial sets, one thing unites dancers born and raised in Utah—strong families. “I think the spirit of a dancer is nurtured by family,” says Robert Fairchild, a principal with New York City Ballet. “Feeling loved generates belief in yourself, and then you can enjoy the personal reward that comes from hard work.”
With such strong relationships, it’s no surprise the dancers born and raised in Utah have a desire to return there at some point. “I want to start a studio in Utah,” says Chelsie Hightower, who was born and raised in Utah and has since gone on to incredible commercial and ballroom dance success. “I’ve been given so much and if I don’t use it to help others, there really will have been no point to being successful.”
Kathy Adams is the dance critic for The Salt Lake Tribune and has written about dance for Salt Lake Magazine, Dance Magazine and Dance Teacher.
This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: In the October issue, it was incorrectly stated that 23,000 dancers showed up to audition for 5,000 spots in the first High School Musical film ("What's Up With Utah," p. 78). Those dancers were auditioning for performance spots in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2002 Olympics.
Photos top to bottom: Ballet West in Stars and Stripes by Ryan Galbraith; Dancers from The Dance Club courtesy Kelly Wanlass; Chelsie Hightower by Kelsey McNeal/FOX.