Teachers Behind the “So You Think You Can Dance” Stars

Dancer talk about the training that got them to the show.

On the air for nine seasons, FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance” is collectively controversial, educational and entertaining. The show is a springboard for versatile young artists vying to become “America’s Favorite Dancer.” Bestowed instant household-name recognition, they go on to perform on television, in films and on Broadway, or tour with top recording artists and dance companies. The show has also provided a platform for emerging and established choreographers, and guest artists of all genres shine in the spotlight of reality celebrity. These are all good things.

Yet there is at least one thing missing. There is little mention of the training that helped the young artists get to this point in their careers. While “SYTYCD” is structured to highlight the individual, the reality is that natural talent is only a seedling that must be nurtured. It is the coaches and mentors along the way who inspire, educate, motivate and mold the futures of these young artists.

Who are these unsung heroes who set the stage for future stardom? DT sought out several contestants to learn where they got their start.

 

Melanie Moore

Teachers: Becca Moore and Dani Rosenberg

Rhythm Dance Center

Marietta, Georgia

Every studio has a star student. But that label can put dancers at a standstill when teachers allow them to settle for less than their utmost potential. “Often, once you get to that place in a studio, the tendency is to relax a bit,” says Season 8 winner Melanie Moore, whose smarts and tenacity constantly surprised her teachers at Rhythm Dance Center. She started dancing at the studio at age 15 after seeing their dancers at competitions. “At my old studio I felt my talent had hit a plateau. No matter how technically good I got, Becca and Dani taught me to never stop working. They never put me on some pedestal or let me rest on my laurels. They taught me that this was a bigger journey and that I had to keep growing.”

Moore’s teachers pushed her to audition for “SYTYCD.” “They would have bought me a plane ticket if I had let them,” she says. Even after her win, Moore, now working in L.A., has continued to train and work on her technique, despite her demanding schedule. “Dancers here seem to settle into work mode and just go from rehearsal to rehearsal. I still want to take class; I still need to take class. There is so much to learn.”

 

Cole Horibe

Teacher: Marcelo Pacleb

24-VII Danceforce

Kaneohe, Hawaii

Before “SYTYCD,” Cole Horibe nearly gave up dance for good. After a five-year break, his teacher Marcelo Pacleb ushered him back into class and encouraged him to grow through his unique martial arts background—the ninja style voters responded to on the show. “I have always been my own worst critic, never satisfied. I always thought I looked and danced differently. Then I finally decided to go with it and have fun,” he says. “It was Marcelo who encouraged me to come back to dance. His talent is helping people find their individuality as an artist.”

Pacleb has had three students appear on “SYTYCD,” each with a unique style. Mark Kanemura (Season 4) and Kúpono Aweau (Season 5) have gone on to perform with Lady Gaga and Madonna. Both encouraged and inspired by his peers, Horibe waited three years before he followed their lead and auditioned for “SYTYCD.” His mixed training, along with his charisma, is what led him to his place in the Top 6. Quiet and humble, Horibe, according to Pacleb, is the hardest working and most dedicated student he can remember, a thought often echoed by Horibe’s fellow “SYTYCD” contestants. Horibe often skipped group dinners and movie outings to practice week after week.

 

Kent Boyd

Teachers: Pam Houston, Tabitha Dickson, Michelle Wolke, Kirsten Walters

The Dance Centre

Wapakoneta, Ohio

Season 7 taught dancers to never underestimate the value of small-town dance studios. Judges talked about all-American farm boy Kent Boyd as if he had sprung up straight from a cornfield with impeccable technique. His home studio in Wapakoneta was never mentioned on air, nor was the group of teachers who had been molding him—even though most of them were in his living room when Nigel Lythgoe told him he’d been selected for the show.

Boyd’s mom enrolled him at The Dance Centre when he was 4 to keep him from tearing apart her living room. There, Tabitha Dickson showed him how to channel his energy into dance. Boyd soon fell in love with movement—a quality so evident that judges on the show often commented negatively. “Tabitha taught me to always perform at 100 percent. She made everything fun. We danced and sang and dressed up!” says Boyd. “At competitions I was often criticized by the judges for having too much fun. That happened when I was on “SYTYCD” as well.”

But this instilled outlook is what books him gigs today. “If you are a good person who works hard, choreographers often hire you again and again. I am finding that in L.A., work ethic and personality get you jobs,” he says. “[My teachers] were life coaches, not just dance coaches.”

 

Melissa Sandvig

Teacher: David Wilcox

Long Beach Ballet School

Long Beach, California

“SYTYCD” didn’t see a ballerina in the Top 20 until Season 5, when Long Beach Ballet dancer Melissa Sandvig stunned with her pure technique. Though the show had seen several well-trained ballet dancers audition before, Sandvig had something that set her apart from the others. She says, “The most memorable thing David Wilcox told me was—at the age of 15—that my technique was great, but at some point I needed to let go and ‘just dance.’ That’s when I really started to enjoy the process of my training and was able to show who I was through my artistry. He helped me with my quality of movement and how to connect to an audience through acting and character.”

In a world where contemporary rules, Sandvig paved the way for others of her genre, including both 2012 winners. But she owes her accomplishments on the show to Wilcox. “It was David’s love for me as a dancer and person that encouraged me—and still encourages me—to be successful,” she says. DT

Rachel Berman is a former dancer with the Paul Taylore Dance Company and an educator, fundraiser and freelance writer.

Photo: All-star Melanie Moore performs with Cyrus Spencer in a piece by Mandy Moore, courtesy of FOX Broadcasting

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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