Dancing stars descend on Utah
July 22, 2008
Two girls twirl outside the door of the Summit Room B ballroom at the Yarrow Hotel. They pause from their routines to take turns hoisting one another by the knees to peer through the door’s peephole, trying to catch a glimpse of some of their dancing role-models as the stereo music seeps into the hallway.
"Can you see?" asks one. "That’s all I care about."
Although the girls are young and lithe, they likely share two things in common with Tracy Turnblat, the plus-sized fictional character from the musical Hairspray: They love to dance, and they love just as much to watch people dance on TV.
The glimpse the girls are after is straight from the studio.
Four alumni from Fox’s popular dance-til-you-drop reality series "So You Think You Can Dance" are teaching a three-day Dance Attack workshop in Park City this week. Last year’s "Dance" champion Sabra Johnson, former winner Nick Lazzarini and top-10 finishers Kameron Bink and Travis Wall are among the faculty.
Other teachers include former Rockettes and professional dancers from Utah.
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Rug burns be damned. About 400 dancers, ages eight- to 19-years-old, packed ballrooms Monday to leap, spin and tumble onto the carpet at the command of some of their favorite performers.
"She does everything perfect," Naomi Gull, 13, said of dancing star Johnson. Naomi and her sister Samantha train at the Dance Club in Orem, not far from the studio where Sabra learned the moves that would jettison her to the top of the dancing world. They took a jazz workshop from Johnson and Bink Monday morning.
Another participant in the class, Brynne Peterson, 12, of Orem, said Sabra taught her to be more precise with her movement. "She goes super fast," Peterson admitted. "It was super hard."
The good news for the girls?
"We got our picture with her!" Naomi gasped.
Utah dancers have made a name for the state in recent years on "So You Think You Can Dance." Besides Johnson, another Utahn, Gev Manoukian, recently garnered praise and more than a few fans break-dancing on TV. Manoukian, who has instructed young dancers in Park City in the past, was voted off "So You Think You Can Dance" last week. He finished among the top-10 competitors. This season’s other high finishers from the state were Thayne Jasperson and Matt Dorame.
Utah’s talent’s isn’t just on television. It’s in living color, said one instructor. "There’s a lot, a lot of talented kids here," Joey Dowling, a dance instructor and former Rockette, said. "Everyone says, ‘What do you drink in Utah? What’s in the water? For some reason, it’s just a big dance community."
Dowling, whose mom Sheryl Dowling owns the Dance Club in Orem, said the dance scene has made huge strides in the state since she went pro nearly 15 years ago. "When you go other places, most kids don’t want to do anything," she said. "Here I think kids really try to be good at something you can’t buy. They end up having integrity and talent."
Dowling smiled when she talked about her students’ enthusiasm for dance. "I tell them I live in New York and they think I’m famous," she laughed.
Sabra learns from students
A then record-breaking 16 million viewers watched Johnson, a contemporary dancer from Roy, Utah, claim the season three "So You Think You Can Dance" title. She became the first woman to win the moniker "America’s favorite dancer" and won $250,000 in prize money.
Since that time, Johnson has taught workshops and plans to audition for dance companies in New York City, where she now lives.
Johnson is no stranger to teaching at dance conventions where hundreds of girls line up in rows, music-video style, to receive instruction.
Janet Jackson would not have been disappointed with the teenage girls sliding on the floor, high-kicking and blindly spinning in Nick Lazzarini’s advanced jazz class Monday. Johnson and Bink entered and milled in the back for a while before taking part in the workshop. They danced not as instructors, but as students. "We’re all the same," Johnson, 20, said. "We’re all learning."
Johnson credited her teachers in Utah with helping train her to become a nationally known dancer. She said TV has helped expose legions of fans to a relatively elitist art form. "I think it’s popular right now because it’s on TV," she said.
Despite all the fanfare swirling around dance, Johnson said the biggest component for a successful career in dance is commitment, not celebrity. "There’s so much disappointment," she said. "It’s a hustle. Every time you do something you have to be better and you body has to be stronger. They opened the door for us. It’s our job to take advantage of it."
The Dance Attack workshop at the Yarrow is the first time "So You Think You Can Dance’s" Johnson has been back in the state to teach since winning. "It’s fun because it’s where I’m from. Only two years ago, I was taking dance here," she said, adding, "Teaching is a challenge. It’s challenging because you’re talking to over 70 kids and you’re trying to help them get something out if it."
Bink, who shared the stage with Johnson last season, said the dancers at the convention were "a teacher’s dream."
"Teaching is great," he said. "As long as you have kids who want to learn."
Sheryl Dowling has been one of the organizers of the Dance Attack workshop since it began 15 years ago. She said dancing teaches kids more than how to get on television. "It teaches exercise, discipline," she said. "You have be quick and make decisions."
Dowling added that having well-known dancers as instructors helps motivate her students. "The kids look at them and say, ‘I can do this too,’" she said.
Dowling has owned the Dance Club in Orem for 29 years. In years since she was a Cougarette (and a math major) at Brigham Young University, Utah has earned a reputation as being a dancing hot spot, she said, because of strong families and committed instructors. "Utah is known as one of the best places for dancing," she said. "I think there are a lot of great studios. I think the families here are really supportive, and maybe there are fewer distractions."