Christy Wolverton’s formula for launching competition dancers into professional careers
2014 started out in a highly meaningful way for Christy Wolverton—surrounded by dance, good intentions and the tight-knit community she’s created via her Plano, Texas–based studio, Dance Industry Performing Arts Center. The first weekend of January marked the inaugural Dancers Give Back Dallas event that studio alum Ida Saki (now with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet) helped organize to honor fellow former competition company member, Micaela White, who died of leukemia in 2011. The two-day fundraiser raised more than $27,000 for cancer research and support, and Dance Industry was an active participant in the effort, which included master classes; a silent auction; and performances by the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, Spirit of Uganda and Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, as well as Dance Industry’s performing company.
“Micaela had been with me since I started the studio, and Dancers Give Back was such an awesome event,” says Wolverton, who opened Dance Industry in 2000. “Seeing everyone come together really put things in perspective; you start to realize this whole dance thing is a lot bigger than we give it credit for.”
Indeed, and the big picture is one Dance Industry students are intimately familiar with. Wolverton has designed Dance Industry to be a competition studio with a strong focus on pre-professional training, a launching pad for dancers to find their professional niche. And the approach seems to be working: Studio alumni are now with companies like Cedar Lake and Thodos Dance Chicago; college dance programs (including NYU, Pace University, Cal Arts and Point Park University); and commercial jobs like “Glee,” the Shaping Sound tour, Broadway’s Soul Doctor and various awards shows.
The Business of Making Stars
Though Saki is now in her second season with Cedar Lake, the writing wasn’t always on the wall that she’d take the stage professionally. Dance Industry instructor Jess Hendricks remembers meeting with the promising young dancer when she was just 14. “Ida said that she wanted to dance but didn’t want to be a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader,” says Hendricks, who ran Dance Industry for six months during Wolverton’s maternity leave and has become an integral part of the studio in the eight years since. “Coming from the concert dance world, I started showing her footage of Batsheva and Cedar Lake and said, ‘What if I told you that you could do this for the rest of your life?’ She replied, ‘Wait a minute…this is out there?’”
Saki’s experience is typical of many dancers who come through Dance Industry. The studio is designed to inform and prepare them for the many opportunities that exist beyond the popular cheerleading culture that prevails in Texas. Company members are encouraged to attend summer intensives everywhere from Juilliard to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, and Wolverton stages her own annual master intensive with four or five guest teachers (such as Jen Hamilton, Brooke Pierotti and Francisco Gella). Guest artists also visit throughout the year, which Wolverton funds by adding a set amount onto yearly tuition. “We try to find a balance by bringing choreographers who aren’t necessarily associated with just the convention circuit,” says Hendricks.
The audition-only company is structured to mimic the stringent requirements of a professional dance job. The 90 dancers who participate must take classes across the board, including lyrical, jazz, ballet, contemporary, technique (a choreography-free class focused on concepts like center barre and balancing), hip hop and tap, and rehearsals are 100 percent mandatory. A big believer in cross-training, Wolverton also sets up group classes on an as-needed basis in everything from boxing to Pilates to strength work.
“I’m a little hardcore,” says Wolverton. “You don’t miss rehearsals; we’ve worked through Christmas and spring break. I have people ask me all the time how I get dancers to commit, and I tell them, ‘That’s the only thing I accept—no exceptions.’ When you do that, you start attracting people who want the same things you do.”
Paving the Way for Success
Hard work is something Wolverton has always modeled by example. For several years after she first opened Dance Industry in 2000, she taught everything herself (except ballet and hip hop) and set all of the choreography, as well. “I opened it really young at 24 years old and just hit the ground running,” says Wolverton, who now employs 15 faculty members (seven of them full-time). “I spent all my time at the studio rehearsing and creating.”
However, the returns on her time investment took a while to come to fruition. She distinctly remembers taking her competition dancers to New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in 2002 before they were ready to compete at that level. “We’d been doing well in Dallas, so I thought, ‘Why not jump feet first?’ We got our rear ends kicked, but it was so great for the kids to see that kind of talent,” she says. “It can take a long time to reap the rewards of training your company dancers; it took us at least seven years to really flourish.”
The company certainly has found its competitive groove—now attending three conventions and six competitions annually (including West Coast Dance Explosion, JUMP, NUVO and 24 Seven). One of the most rewarding wins was at NYCDA Nationals in 2009 (their first time since that eye-opening initial trip), where they won two titles and the honor of “National Teen Critics Choice.” Says Wolverton, “It was the moment when I could breathe and say, ‘We are good now.’ We’ve seen our kids come up through mini all the way to senior company, and they’re killing it.”
Yet striking a balance between competition and pre-professional training can be tricky at times, as Wolverton is careful to point out. “We’re a competition studio, but that’s not what’s important to me,” she says. “The more important thing is training dancers who are versatile and know what’s up professionally. It’s crucial to learn the ins and outs of the business, and it’s our job as teachers to put them in situations where they can identify what they want to do.”
Another precarious balancing act has been finding harmony with the prestigious Dallas, TX–based Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where many of the Dance Industry students are enrolled. Wolverton admits it can be difficult at times, between scheduling snafus and overextended dancers, but she absolutely supports her students doing double-duty. “Booker T. can do a lot of things that we don’t have the money or manpower to do, like bringing in colleges and doing audition scholarships,” she says. “It’s a great school, and we’d be silly to deprive our kids of it. They do a lot of stuff there that pulls kids away from the studio, but we make sacrifices and adjust accordingly.”
Ultimately, Wolverton’s secret weapon for sustaining a thriving studio has been finding students who have the same values and passion for dance as she does. “There are people who have the talent, people who have the passion and love for movement and people who have both,” she says. “Ideally, we want both, but it’s more important that they want to be here. When you surround yourself with like-minded people, you’re setting yourself up for success.” DT
Frequent contributor Jen Jones Donatelli is based in Los Angeles.
Bridging the Gap
“Going from a competitive background to a conservative college dance program can be like night and day,” says Dance Industry instructor Jess Hendricks. “When dancers hit college, it’s totally foreign to them; the goal is to bridge the gap a bit so it’s not two different worlds.”
To this end, Dance Industry has offered a dedicated pre-professional program to an intimate group of up to 15 students (all older company members) for the last several years. To be admitted, dancers were required to audition with a self-choreographed piece and do personal interviews with staff. Those accepted took one extra class per week with Hendricks on topics such as composition, improvisation, nutrition, anatomy and choreography. Outside research assignments were also given on high-profile companies like Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet to help them better pinpoint their path.
Though the program is currently on hiatus due to heavy demands of the dancers who attend Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Dance Industry owner Christy Wolverton hopes to bring it back in the future. “The program focused on things dancers would probably never learn in a dance studio setting, like how to make a resumé, pose for a headshot,” she says. “Unless you go to a performing arts high school, you typically don’t get that education.”
“Every year our curriculum changes at the studio, depending on the kids,” she says. “We look at what direction we’re going and conform accordingly. I would bring it back right now, if I felt our dancers had the time.” —JJD