Michelle Latimer Dance Academy, located in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, has collected countless awards on the competition circuit over the past 19 years. Successful alumni include Kayla Radomski of “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 5.
You started taking your students to competition the year you opened your studio. Why so soon?
I wanted them to get performance experience, and aside from recitals and local shows, competition was the only venue we had. It’s a great forum for the dancers to express themselves onstage, and it pushes them to the next level. When the dancers know they’re going to be adjudicated in front of their peers, they push harder during the year to be their best. The winning isn’t the most important thing—it’s about the growth. We do well at competition and that’s great, but for the dancers it’s about improving and performing.
What keeps your dancers motivated throughout the year?
Every year in October I take my senior company to L.A. The dancers spend an entire week taking classes at EDGE Performing Arts Center and Millennium Dance Complex. They take up to 20 classes, and when they return to the studio at the end of the week they’re reinspired, ready to push harder and show the younger dancers what they learned.
How do you work with guest choreographers?
I bring in at least two guest artists every year: Jason Parsons and Dee Caspary. Jason comes for a whole week and sets choreography on my teen and senior companies. He also gives workshop classes all week long. I bill the dancers extra for these workshops. Dancers audition for the competition piece, and if selected, they are charged an additional choreography fee. The choreography fee varies depending on the number of dancers (i.e., the fewer the dancers in the piece, the higher the share is for each dancer). I videotape the rehearsals and take tons of notes, but once the guest choreographer is gone, I don’t change any of the choreography. We continue rehearsing it, but nothing gets changed. The dancers look forward to training with a guest artist, and the parents see it as a special learning opportunity. I also tell my students that if they want to have professional dance careers, these are the people who may employ them in the future.
What is your process for cleaning routines?
First the dancers mark the routine to the music and I pay attention to their musicality. I want to see that they’re on the music and can really hear it. Then they do it full-out once and I take notes on how the piece looks overall. From there, we start breaking the routine down from the beginning, count by count. We make sure every move for every count matches. If one person is off, I’ll stop and say, “OK, you’re wrong on this part. Let’s fix it.” I also talk to the dancers about their focus and intention with each move. I ask them what they’re thinking about while they’re doing it. We’ll clean two 8-counts step-by-step, then do that much full-out. We’ll slowly add on 8-counts one at a time. It’s a slow process, but it’s more effective than just having the dancers run the routine over and over. That exhausts them and the choreography starts to look sloppy.
What is the secret to your studio’s success?
It all comes down to the dancers loving what they do and inspiring each other. I talk to them about being their best, but I also tell them they have to acknowledge greatness in other people. When we’re at competitions or conventions and they see something they love, they go nuts for it. I love that—they’re confident in their own abilities, so when they see other people, they’re inspired by them, not threatened. They know that it’s not about competition between dancers. I tell them that another dancer’s greatness doesn’t detract from their greatness.
Photo by Richard Harrison, courtesy of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy