The Aspire Academy of Expressive Arts has been open in the Carlsborg area for 13 years now, and has seen steady expansion and growth over the years.
With recitals and musicals and all sorts of events, the dance academy has been very successful, but they hadn’t gotten much into the competitive dance scene — until this year.
Under the direction of instructor and competition team director Erica Edwards, Aspire had started getting more into competitive dance, including fielding a junior elite dance team for the first time this year — roughly the equivalent to select teams in youth basketball, baseball or other youth sports
Aspire had team members compete recently for the first time at the touring Rainbow National Dance Competition in Seattle, earning honors while they were at it.
Senior soloist Leah Jackson won two individual awards, including topping her dance category, while the Aspire junior dance team earned several awards, including an Overall High Point award and a Judge’s Choice award for their hip-hop dance performance, and a Double Platinum Award for their overall showing.
“It was fantastic seeing them do so well and have so much fun,” Edwards said. “They put all of themselves into that competition and got so much out of it.”
Several members of the team laughed when recounting a story of the junior team’s other male member, Cyrus Deede, getting into a dance battle backstage with members of other teams, drawing attention and admiration from representatives of dance groups from all over the region.
“He was just having so much fun,” team captain Ayla Alstrup said.
“That’s just how Cyrus is,” teammate Sofia Divinsky added. “He’s so good but always enjoying everything.”
Deede has been dancing competitively for longer than most of his teammates as well: In 2019, he was part of a small group of soloists from Aspire competing individually at the Dupree Dance Convention in Seattle, a major annual event that draws hundreds of competitors.
According to Edwards, Deede drew so much attention at Dupree last year that he was one of a limited number of dancers who earned a scholarship to help fund his dance instruction.
“There are usually more than 600 dancers at Dupree, and maybe 20 or 30 earn a scholarship,” Edwards said. “You have to really wow the judges and organizers to get one, but that’s Cyrus.”
When Aspire returned to Dupree the weekend of Feb. 8, Deede impressed the organizers once more, earning another scholarship alongside three of his teammates: Alstrup, Divinsky and Emma Edwards.
As a whole, the junior elite team received several awards as well, including platinum awards for their hip-hop and musical theatre performances, including placing seventh overall in their musical theatre category for their performance of “Friend Like Me” from Disney’s Aladdin.
Senior soloist Brianna Yacklin also achieved a major first for Aspire: their first-ever diamond award at a competition. She finished in third place in her senior category for her performance of Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted,” earning a score that qualified her for the highest possible award category for the competition.
Aspiring to inspire
Edwards said that a major part of her reason for wanting to assemble competitive teams at Aspire Academy was to help give many of the school’s 300 dance students something to, well, aspire to.
“There just wasn’t a dance team like this in the northern peninsula,” Edwards said. “There was no opportunity for students to take that next step, to work towards something bigger. We wanted to give them that.”
Edwards knew that the challenge of always going to have to commute a long ways to attend any competitions would be difficult, but worth the effort.
The Rainbow and Dupree competitions were both in Seattle, which Edwards said made for an exciting trip for the team, and their next two competitions take them to Tacoma at the end of February and then to Portland in March.
That travel is worth it, Edwards said, for the experiences and opportunities the dancers get, both in the competition and just in getting to go be in a new place with their friends.
Junior team members Alstrup, Divinsky, Deede and Becca Marshall all expressed their enjoyment of the team competitive atmosphere, with the students involved all working together to succeed.
“It’s fun to be supported by your team,” Alstrup said.
According to Edwards, the age among the team ranges in age from 9 to 15, a wider range than typical for junior competitive teams, but it gives her a team that she feels is a strong base to start from in the program’s burgeoning competing teams.
“Part of what we’re hoping for and what we’re seeing is our younger students watching them work hard and get rewarded for it,” Edwards said.
“Getting inspired by that can help them do more and push themselves to be better, and maybe be part of the team themselves one day.
Another important factor for the team is their own insistence that the boys and girls in the team are treated equally.
“We get the same treatment the girls do,” Deede said of himself and teammate Noah Jackson. “We all want it to be that way. We’re not ‘the guys in the team’; we’re dancers, the same as they are.”
Putting in the work
The junior competitive team doesn’t just work on their competition performances at Aspire Academy: they have multiple required classes along with their team responsibilities.
“They’re all required to be in a technical dance class, ballet or jazz performance,” Edwards said. “Plus, another creative dance class that they can choose.”
Most of the team members are in more classes as well, with several saying that they are taking classes at Aspire five days a week.
Edwards added that since the Rainbow competition, she’s seen a new drive in the team as well.
“They saw what other teams are doing and how they’re doing it,” she said.
“And that’s helped push them to work harder and try new things. Just seeing other teams and getting feedback from judges has already done a lot to help them get better.”
They’re also working on a recital program for Aspire in June, an adaptation of “Cinderella” that will feature Leah Jackson playing the titular role, and members of the junior competitive team filling out other major roles alongside other school members.
Team members are also preparing for auditions for next year’s team, which will be held on May 30 at Aspire. Each team member will be required to audition again, alongside other hopeful members.
Whoever winds up in the team will also be invited to a summer choreography workshop to start preparing for next year’s dance programs.
“These kids put in so much work for this,” Edwards said. “But they love it, and it shows.”
For more information on The Aspire Academy of Expressive Arts, visit https://aspireacademy.us/ or call 360-681-3979.