When Tuscarora and Urbana high schools go head-to-head in competition, tensions are usually high, but as the lights went up and the speakers filled the auditorium at the All-County High School Dance Festival, the vibe was different from other sporting arenas.
“Any opportunity to dance, I will take,” said Eliza Strand, 14, a freshman at Tuscarora High School. “... It should be fun, it shouldn’t be stressful.”
Frederick County Public Schools’ six dance programs came together Wednesday night to share the stage for the annual dance festival. The students brought a range of genres to the showcase, including modern, tap, jazz, lyrical and hip-hop, with different experience levels and their own flair for classic techniques.
Linganore High School brought a chilling version of IT to life with their hip-hop dance “Terror” choreographed by Riley Johnston, complete with yellow raincoats and a solitary helium balloon. Tuscarora High School also brought to life a lively city street of tap dancers in “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” choreographed by Katie Moore.
“Dance is an art form. It’s athletic and it’s something every individual person can do and be proud of,” said Eliza, who studied at the Washington School of Ballet for six years before switching to Tuscarora’s dance and drama programs.
She performed in four of the beginner numbers put on by Tuscarora for the festival: hip-hop, tap, modern and jazz. She planned to stay in the program and move up through the intermediate and advanced classes.
The 2019 dance festival was special, however, with professional musical theater performer Colleen Hayes invited to be the guest choreographer of the final dance.
A select group of 14 girls were chosen for the first-ever auditioned cross-school performance. They arrived at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School at 8 a.m. Wednesday to learn the dance and rehearse with Hayes until 2 p.m. before performing it that night on the school’s stage.
Hayes, 28, is a graduate of the James Madison University theater and dance program. She lives in New York City, where she regularly auditions for Broadway shows and is a guest choreographer for schools and dance studios. She returned to her native Frederick County on Tuesday to help the school system put on the festival.
Hayes graduated from Frederick High School in 2008 and attended the FCPS Academy for Fine Arts, where she concentrated on advanced musical theater studies in her junior and senior years. She also trained at Dance Unlimited in the city of Frederick from the age of 3 under the direction of Donna Grim.
“Dance is tricky, because you don’t know how to celebrate it, especially in a county-wide school system way. ... How do we celebrate these athletes who are artists?” Hayes said.
Sports with clear scoring systems and consistent techniques are easier for school competitions. Dance poses a unique challenge for that same kind of sharing, because it has elements of creative expression alongside athleticism, and judgment of it is often opinion-based, she said.
Sharing dance, and dance programs, is important in a public school setting because not all students can afford a private dance school education, Hayes said.
“The event really promotes the importance of having these courses available in our high schools,” said Kim Hirschmann, the curriculum specialist for secondary visual and performing arts at FCPS.
The all-county dance festival is a chance for the community to see what the schools are doing and what FCPS can provide through its performing arts programs, Hirschmann said. It is also an opportunity to move the study of dance forward, and not settle for the status quo, she said.
Part of that advancement was creating an auditioned troupe of dancers to showcase the best of the schools’ programs. Approximately 20 girls auditioned for the 14 slots in the final performance piece.
“We went back and forth, but we really wanted to make this special and elite and something to work toward,” Hayes said.
The girls were performing a high-energy jazz routine to “Back Where I Belong” by Otto Knows, featuring Avicii. Many of the dancers had never been in a room together, let alone shared a stage.
Najae Ellis, 14, a freshman at Gov. Thomas Johnson, and Chelsea Dingee, 15, a sophomore at Urbana High School, were two of the girls selected for the special performance. They both said when they arrived at the school Wednesday morning, it was a little weird to be in a room with dancers they had never met or performed with before.
“It’s a different kind of environment than I’m used to, but it’s exciting to get it all done in one day,” said Chelsea, who trains at Dance Unlimited and performs with Urbana High School’s dance company.
Despite the tight schedule to learn the final performance piece in one day, Hayes led the girls through a few icebreaker activities. Then they started to find connections on their own, such as friends-of-friends and a shared love for dance, Chelsea said.
“We’re all just dancers trying to take a chance on a new opportunity,” said Najae, who dances at 24/7 Dance Studio.
The stage stayed dark with just a shadow of light blue light as the piece began and a crisscross of dancers ran across the stage. Acrobatics, turn sequences and group movement followed and were a testament to the girls’ technique and strength.
Participating in a cross-school athletic and artistic experience was a way to have students dance, but to also look at one another and interact, Hayes said. Both are important for development as students and people, she said.
Sharing the stage was also an opportunity for schools without dance programs to consider beginning one, and for students to share and swap choreography ideas.
“I think it does a lot. It promotes an idea of collaboration rather than competition, which I love,” Hayes said.
For students who didn’t audition for the final dance, the festival was still an opportunity to share the skills they have worked on every week in class.
“I signed up because I have an interest in dance and I also wanted to expand upon what I learned in show choir,” said Anthony Sabatano, 18, a senior at Tuscarora High School.
Anthony was one of a handful of young men to share the stage at the festival. Urbana High School also had a contingent of 14 male performers, as it has become a tradition for seniors to sign up in their final semester, Chelsea said. They showed off new skills lifting and flipping their female peers, and some of them even completed standing back tucks of their own.
“The two guys in our group are pretty good at dancing, and I truly believe it’s an open community,” Anthony said.
For other students, the festival was an opportunity to get onstage after time away from dance. Elizabeth Jakab, 18, a senior at Tuscarora as well, left her studio her sophomore year, after dancing for nine years, to focus on school and a job.
She’s always loved being onstage and performing, but finding time to balance everything can be difficult.
“This is just wonderful to get back into dance and work with a new choreographer,” Elizabeth said.
Each of the selected all-county performers was presented a special token at the end of the show, as is customary for all-county vocal and band performers as well.
FCPS plans to continue to invite guest choreographers to the annual dance festival to expand its offerings in the performing arts, Hirschmann said. Having one of the school system’s alumna be the first choreographer, however, was special and inspiring to the students, she said.
“This is a huge step to just bring [dance] more attention,” Hayes said.