Two girls, no more than 12 years old, wearing billowing hairnets and brightly colored costumes walked along the maze of sidewalks leading to Northrop Mall. As they got closer to the auditorium pavilion they became the norm, rather than the novelty.
Girls and boys gathered with their families as part of an all-weekend dance extravaganza at Northrop Auditorium. The competitive event featured over 20 local dance studios, some with as many as 600 dancers.
Three families from Jan’s School of Dance in Hastings, Minn. ate lunch sitting on two sun-splashed Northrop plaza benches. They took a break before performing their last of four dance routines, a clogging number in the production category.
Jodie Stevens, 10, and Vanessa Otto, 11, have both been dancing for most of their lives. Otto, who’s been dancing for 11 years, referred to it as her “professional talent.”
They really take this seriously, but not too seriously.
Kathy Meyers, the mother of one of the dancers in Jan’s School of Dance, said neither she nor the teacher push her kids to dance. “(Jan) likes to keep her kids motivated but not to the point where they can’t do anything else,” Meyers said.
Jan has been teaching dance for 17 years. She started taking gymnastics when she was three with her older sister and eventually moved into dance. She taught gym classes at Hastings High School, then realized a childhood dream by opening her own dance school.
She teaches between 400 and 500 students of varying ages. But she said they have fun doing it.
And the kids share that attitude. “They’d like to get first place but they just like to get out there,” said Meyers.
Gina Melbo, a University freshman who also teaches dance at Jan’s school, said there are many children whose parents push them and the kids’ lack of desire shows in the performance.
“Usually they don’t know what they’re doing because they don’t care enough to pay attention in class,” Melbo said.
Stevens, who’s been dancing since she was 2 years old, said she does it because it’s fun and it’s good exercise. She also likes the attention of having all eyes on her during a performance.
And indeed all eyes were on these children when they hit the stage.
Inside the auditorium, pre-teen bodies stepped in time to a hip-hop techno beat. The dancers, caked with mascara and clad in aqua velvet pants, organized on stage, criss-crossing before a black, yellow and white backdrop promoting the event sponsor, Starlight Productions.
The company produces between 30 and 40 competitive weekend events in major U.S. cities. Top performances win money and qualify for the national finals competitions in Houston, Texas, and Santa Cruz, Calif.
Dance categories range from tap and jazz to ballet and lyrical. Judges evaluate performances according to technique, routine execution, stage presence, choreography/music and costuming.
Dancers pay between $14 and $30 per event and could end up forking over hundreds if they participate in numerous routines.
“That’s the cheap part,” said Paul Skinner, vice president of Starlight Productions of the competition entry fees. Costume costs and lesson fees inflate the price tag to hundreds more.
Skinner said his production company was the first to start major competitions in Minnesota.
“Now everyone and their dog comes up to Minneapolis to do a production,” Skinner said.
Starlight has returned to Minnesota — and Northrop — since Skinner has been involved. They book Northrop instead of local high schools because “it’s just the nicest place,” Skinner said.
For $17,000 per weekend, it’s also the most expensive. However, Skinner said it’s worth it; Starlight Productions pulls in a good profit and good dancers.
“They grow ’em good up here,” Skinner said of the talented Minnesota dance pool. “I guess it’s so cold, people got nothin’ better to do than dance.”