Entertainment

Today’s young dancers train hard to win trophies. But what are they losing?

The ballroom is churning with little girls, rocket-powered sprites in pink, purple and teal leotards, muscled legs pumping, hands offering heart shapes, eagerly following Bobby Newberry, the dance teacher on a platform at the front of the room. Most are tiny. But the floor is heaving under the massed impact of their small feet.

They are shaking up the dance world as well.

These girls, and their class at the recent Jump convention at the Miami Airport Convention Center, are part of the burgeoning world of competitive dance, a phenomenon that has spawned legions of studios training children as young as 5 to compete in local, regional and national contests around the country. Miami is a hotbed for the scene, with studios that regularly produce national contest winners and competitors on TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” a peak achievement in this world.

The trend feeds (and feeds on) a broader rise of dance in pop culture, from TV shows like “SYTYCD” and “Dance Moms” to dance becoming a key part of pop concerts and videos, advertising, Broadway and films from “Step Up” to “Black Swan.” In capitalizing on the American obsession with rating winners and losers in everything from singing to cooking, competitive dance has brought dance out of the concert hall and into the strip mall, arguably making what has long been an elite art form more popular than ever before.

“It’s brought dance to the forefront,” says Mia Michaels, the Miami-raised former “SYTYCD” choreographer who has worked with Celine Dion and on Broadway shows and is a star teacher on the competition circuit. “Dance is celebrated now. Before people didn’t even know what choreographers were, and now it’s a household word.”

But some worry that judging dance by points and trophies distorts what is an art, not a sport. And they warn that, with so many children eager to join the glamorous ranks of leaping medal winners, the competitive dance scene is vulnerable to exploitation, whether of ambitious or indulgent parents who spend thousands a year on their achievement-driven offspring, or of kids stressed by long hours of training and pressure to win.

 
Valentina Tous, 6, warms up backstage at the Jump dance convention in Miami. JORDAN LEVIN / jlevin@miamiherald.com

“It’s addictive — getting trophies, instant gratification,” says Ruth Wiesen, director of the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet, a longtime ballet school and children’s company in South Dade. “I know parents who have mortgaged their homes for this. … These kids all think they’re going to be dancers. The chances are so small.”

Dance training used to largely be the province of ballet schools like Wiesen’s, often associated with professional troupes, and mom-and-pop studios, showcasing kids in parent-packed recitals or holiday “Nutcracker” shows. Few students took dance beyond a childhood pastime.

Now it is an endeavor that can consume children and their families. Take Stars Dance Studio, which trained 2014 “SYTYCD” winner Ricky Ubeda, and is one of the top competitive studios in South Florida. Owners Victor Smalley, a self-taught finalist on the 6th season of “SYTYCD,” and Angel Armas, a former ballroom dancer, had their own reality show, “Miami Dance Moms,” in 2012; they regularly travel the country to teach, choreograph and coach. Several years ago they started a home-school program for their most dedicated competitors. It now has 32 students who spend the day training, starting with four hours of ballet, followed by hours more of coaching, rehearsal and other classes.

“When I saw how serious my kids were, I realized I had to do something more,” Armas says.

“People are training and investing in dance like in college now,” Smalley says. “If you stay focused and keep your eyes on your goal it will happen for you. People who get distracted are the ones who fail.”

On a recent weekday morning, a small group rehearsing their Jump solos, in a studio with shades lowered and lights turned down, is utterly focused. “Remember, performance is everything,” Smalley tells them. Lean and silent, his charges veer from wide-limbed tilts and leaps to contorted poses, twisting in tension-wracked motion. Their athleticism is extraordinary. Diana Pombo, a greyhound-lean 10-year-old, eyes herself critically in the mirror as she tips into a perfect split arabesque, balancing on one arched foot as her other leg reaches to the ceiling. Logan Hernandez, 17, a transplant from Orlando, hovers upside down on his forearms, then snakes to the floor in thrillingly controlled slow motion.

During a break, they turn back into kids, sprawling on the floor, giggling at videos on tablets, texting friends, doing homework. But they are consumed in a way most children are not.

“I’ve always loved going onstage since I was little,” Diana says.

“I love dance so much,” says Brady Farrar, 12, a wunderkind whose family moved from North Carolina so he could study at Stars and who has turned down scholarships at top ballet academies to maintain his competition regime. “I like feeling free.”

“I really wanted to be a professional dancer, like the kids on TV,” says Destanye Diaz, 11, who’s been dancing since she was 3 and loves competing. “The adrenaline is like, wow, and at the end it feels so good.”

For children exhilarated by their ability and love of dancing, their obsession is fulfilling.

“If you love it, no, it’s not stressful,” says Lourdes Albarellos, a former member of the National Ballet of Cuba and the Joffrey Ballet who teaches at Stars. “You never want to stop.”

But the pressure can take a toll. Rachel Leon, a serious 11-year-old who is part of the elite group at Stars, says dancing is her “passion” and makes her “feel free.” But she broke into tears several times as she talked about her disappointment at not winning a national competition last summer, although she placed in the top 10. She even considered quitting.

 
Brady Farrar, Destanye Diaz, Brook Judge and Isabella Tagle show off their awards at the Jump dance convention in Miami. JOSE A. IGLESIAS / jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

“It was so much pressure, and I did really good, but I really wanted to win,” Rachel says. “I love winning. It’s something that I want to do and that I am determined to do. If I’m going to dance, I want to be the best.”

Being constantly surrounded by others who are just as driven adds to her anxiety.

“It’s kind of lonely. … That’s just how it is. Everyone is so competitive it gets to a point where it’s unfriendly.”

The end game for all this work and passion is an event like Jump, one of three convention/competitions produced by Break the Floor, a leading player in this world which claims to reach half a million dancers a year. The Jump event, like Nuvo and 24 Seven, travels the country, staging dozens of weekends of master classes and contests that draw between 500 and 1,500 kids. (The company also produces DancerPalooza, a massive annual festival; a teacher summit; and two national awards shows.)

Attending Jump costs $175 to $295; fees to compete range from $45 (per child in large group numbers) to $135 (for solos); parents pay $20 to $40 to observe. Many kids go to multiple conventions a year. Add the cost of studio tuition, fees for coaching and choreography for routines (which can run up to $1,000), hotels and airfare, costumes, dance gear and more, and the annual cost of keeping a busy young dancer on the circuit can quickly hit $20,000 a year. Asked what they spend on their young champions, a number of parents replied with (often sheepish) versions of “I try not to think about it.”

But they say the expense is worth it to support their children’s talent and ambitions. Competitive dance has capitalized on Americans’ belief in the value of relentless work in pursuit of a goal, helping parents justify the effort and cost, regardless of whether their children win or go on to a professional career.

“We took her out of private school to dance,” says William Tagle of daughter Isabella, 11, who dances at Stars. “We will do whatever it takes to help her pursue her dreams. For us it’s not about the trophies. We want her to get better.”

“We have sacrificed our lives for them to do this,” says Olga Villaverde, who spends more than $25,000 a year on daughters Daniela, 12, and Samantha, 14, to compete with Dance Unlimited. Initially skeptical, Villaverde was won over by their desire. “When they told me this is what they wanted they were so clear,” she says. “They love to compete with themselves. They tell me, ‘I have to get better every day.’ They’re learning to go for it, to win and lose and try again.”

At the Miami Jump in September children swarmed the carpeted plains and long hallways of the convention center, leaping and spinning as they practiced their routines, giggling and shooting selfies, streaming into classes with their idols. Girls 5 and 6 years old shrieked with delight as teacher Nick Lazzarini led an outer space-themed class with calls to “wriggle our Martian ears!” and “drive our spaceship!” Tension bloomed on the faces of those awaiting their turn on the competition stage, facing a panel of judges, cheering parents and peers and a photographer (photos on sale later for $10 each).

 
Lauren Gonzalez, 11, waits to do her competition routine at the Jump dance convention in Miami. JORDAN LEVIN / jlevin@miamiherald.com

Mothers hovered in the margins, tapping on phones, cheering routines, hauling gear. Backstage, Arelys Cruz helped daughter Valentina, 6, stretch her perfect 180-degree split still further. She has been dancing since age 2. “I couldn’t get her to get rid of her pacifier,” Cruz says. “I told her if you give me your pacifier, I’ll give you dance classes.”

Valentina likes competing. “It’s challenging,” she says. “She’s inspired,” says her mother. “It’s what she wants.”

Not everyone is enthralled with this relentless ethos. At Angel Logan’s Dance Empire, students compete every other year. Logan, a New World School of the Arts graduate who launched Empire in 1998, before the scene exploded, has veteran dancers and teachers on staff, and her studio draws children of dancers as well as students at arts schools such as New World and Coral Reef Senior High School. Her alumni have gone on to Broadway shows, pop tours and top conservatories; one, Brandon Bryant, was a runner-up on “SYTYCD.”

Logan has mixed feelings about competitions, even as a means to an end.

“I love it and I hate it,” she says. “It gives my kids a chance to be on stage, get practice, stamina, to feel the butterflies. Kids get to see other dancers their age who are great. They always come back lit up and inspired.”

But she worries about the pressure to do ever more extreme stunts, and judging that can reward cookie cutter choreography and melodramatic performance that verges on caricature. One of her star graduates, Jamar Roberts, whom Logan discovered at Coral Reef and is now an acclaimed dancer at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (he returns each year to teach at Empire), never won a national title. “He was always beat by the blonde boy with perfect feet that looked like a competition dancer,” Logan says. “I love telling my kids that.”

One evening at her sprawling studio near The Falls, Logan leads a class of advanced teenagers, calling out a mix of technical corrections “Finish the line! Higher releve!” with artistic exhortations like “Make it your own” and “I want you to tell me a story.” She lets them improvise, and the kids respond passionately, hurling themselves into the dance, applauding each other.

“I came here from a studio that was really centered around competition,” says Rebecca Fisher, 14. “Here, I’m learning to hold myself to a higher standard.”

“I came here from a competition studio, and it was the most stressful,” says Nicole Perez, 18, who attends New World. She switched to Dance Empire after competing against them. “They didn’t have the crazy legs and flips, but … when they finished dancing, you wished they would keep dancing.”

 
Angel Fraser Logan, (pointing), owner of Empire Dance Studios, leads a class of advanced students. JOSE A. IGLESIAS / jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Competitive dance rewards not just technical feats like multiple turns, but physical extremes — backbends that fold the body double and the “Tuesday Tilt,” a standing split that often extends past a straight line to hip busting V’s.

Pursuing physical achievements has boosted technique. But it can also result in routines like many at Jump, in which dancers moved awkwardly from stunt to stunt with little relationship to the music, or the flow and movement quality that makes dancing different from gymnastics.

“Better artists would come out of the situation if competitive dance was not competitive,” says Roberts, the Ailey dancer. “Kids would have to learn how to be real artists instead of tricksters.”

Michaels, who has taught at conventions for years, says the circuit can discourage creativity.

“It’s about balance. If the studio or kid just focuses on competitions, they can get so caught up in winning they lose why they’re doing it. A lot of times competition kids dance like robots … all tricks and no emotion or artistry. You can get caught in the formula of what will win a trophy as opposed to training a real dancer.”

There are physical consequences as well. Dancing at elite levels has always been fraught with injury. But children on the competitive circuit are spending more time at younger ages taking their bodies to greater extremes — much like in youth sports such as tennis and baseball, which can also consume children’s lives. And teachers on the mushrooming dance scene, who might not have formal training themselves, don’t always know the correct regimen to prevent problems.

“We’re seeing a lot more chronic and overuse injuries in these dancers … that we didn’t used to see until much later,” says Kathleen Bower, a Miami physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. That includes tendinitis — chronic inflammation of tendons — in hips and ankles, and even early arthritis. Overstretching already limber young bodies, ahead of the slower work of building control or core strength, can lead to overstretched ligaments, which don’t go back — leading to joints moving in ways they weren’t meant to move. That all this is happening on growing bodies increases potential complications.

When asked if they’d hurt themselves, the Stars home school students responded with a litany of sprained ankles, fractured feet, aching hip joints, sore Achilles tendons and strained hamstrings. “I have a pinched nerve in my hip right now,” Destanye said. “I’m supposed to stay out for a week, but I can’t. I have competition right now. My mom is paying a lot of money, and I don’t want her to waste it.”

Dr. Kathleen L. Davenport, a Boynton Beach orthopedist who specializes in sports and dance injuries, says doctors still don’t have enough data to know how problematic intense early training can be. “You don’t want to limit a kid and say this is bad for you, but you don’t want to put a child at risk,” she says.

However, Davenport notes that the American Orthopedic Society of Sports Medicine has recommended that the number of hours children train each week should match a child’s age, so a 9-year-old, for instance, would train nine hours a week. More than that, she says, “they could have increased risk of burnout, overuse injury or decreased performance.”

Whether the competitive dance scene can connect with the larger dance world is an open question. Winners at Break the Floor events can earn scholarships to conventions for up to a year, as well as a chance to assist teachers — essentially making the rewards a form of marketing for the company’s own events. (Another contest producer, New York City Dance Alliance, also offers scholarships to New York studios.) Break the Floor fields a troupe, Shaping Sounds, headed by Travis Wall, a “SYTYCD” choreographer who is one of the genre’s biggest stars, and Lazzarini; the company, which has been on TV and tours nationally, is the summit of ambition for many.

Few of the thousands of children lured into dance by competitions will become professionals. But their sheer numbers have increased the talent pool for the commercial world.

Convention teachers, who increasingly work in TV or pop music, do scout for talent. “If someone stands out who’s extraordinary, I ask them to come on tour or assist me,” says Newberry, a regular jazz-funk teacher for Break the Floor. Ubeda, the “SYTYCD” winner from Stars, has a lead role in the revival of “Cats” on Broadway. One girl who snuck into Michaels’ class at a competition is playing Peter Pan in the touring version of “Finding Neverland,” the Broadway hit she choreographed.

 
Daniela Damas of Dance Unlimited gets a last minute touch up from her mom Olga Villaverde at the Jump dance convention in Miami. JOSE A. IGLESIAS / jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

“I know a lot of kids coming from conventions who are principals on Broadway or dancing in companies all over the world,” Michaels says.

Given the scene’s popularity, some in the traditional dance world are resigned, if ambivalent, about the idea that competition dance is here to stay.

“I’m torn on this issue,” says Lara Murphy, a former ballet dancer who teaches at New World. “The bad is we have a full generation of kids who have grown up with this as their definition of dance. It’s only one type of dance, and it’s commercial.”

But she’s also been impressed.

“I see these kids who have extraordinary performing abilities, who’ve been performing so long from such a young age they’re often fearless. They’re willing to challenge themselves to take on anything, any style of movement.”

Among them is Rosie Elliott, 14, who has been competing successfully since she started dancing at age 7 but also studied at Miami City Ballet (where she turned down a scholarship offer to join Stars’ home school program); she continues on the circuit while studying at New World. While she appreciates the rigor of her traditional training, she loves the freeform style and thrill of competing as well.

“I like to have more freedom,” says Elliot, who has a fluid, dreamy way of moving and hopes to choreograph some day. “I need both, because the ballet and modern training is important, and it’s more serious at New World. But I definitely need Stars too. They teach you how to think on your own. Some kids really want to win. I’m in it more for the art form than for the trophy.”

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