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Howard County schools’ first All-County Dance Ensemble brings together students and pros

The Howard County schools system has established its first-ever All-County Dance Ensemble, with student dancers from all 12 county high schools.
The Howard County schools system has established its first-ever All-County Dance Ensemble, with student dancers from all 12 county high schools. (Nicholas Griner, HCPSS / HANDOUT)

On grocery trips with her mom as a 3-year-old in Texas, Stephanie Wang was fascinated with the dance studio next door. She would always ask to peer through the studio’s glass window to see what was going on inside.

She soon was signed up for classes and has not stopped dancing since. Now 16, Stephanie started with Chinese folklore dancing, ballet and technique classes. Over the years, she expanded into all forms of popular dance, including contemporary, modern jazz, tap and hip-hop.

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A sophomore at Atholton High School in Columbia, Stephanie is one of 24 students in the first All-County Dance Ensemble for Howard County Public School System high schoolers.

Brooke Kuhl-McClelland, Hammond High School dance instruction team leader, was instrumental in creating the ensemble. Kuhl-McClelland tapped Holli Tucci, Oakland Mills High School’s dance director, to be the ensemble’s co-coordinator.

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“In the beginning, it was about giving our kids a real-world experience and also aligning ourselves with other school things like All-County music, All-County athletics,” Tucci said.

Kuhl-McClelland recruited Nathanial Hunt — a Maryland native, now New York-based professional dancer, educator and freelance choreographer — and his colleague Allie Gee, also from Maryland, to run the audition process and choreograph the initial performance.

The ensemble established “a great sense of community,” bringing together dancers who had never danced together before, Kuhl-McClelland said.

The hope is for the student dancers to gain another perspective on the world of dance — different from their in-school dance classes and out-of-school practice — by learning from professionals and performing together, Kuhl-McClelland said.

The ensemble’s inaugural performance was at the Howard County Dance Festival at Howard High School in February.

For its second performance, the ensemble was to dance in the Bright Minds Foundation’s annual Strutting with the Staff Dance Contest on March 31. As a result of the coronavirus health emergency, it has been rescheduled to June 1, according to the Bright Minds website.

Bright Minds, the school system’s educational foundation, hosts the annual event featuring school staff dance teams competing and performing. The All-County Dance Ensemble would perform, not compete.

The audition, first performance

To provide an authentic New York City Broadway audition, all dancers wore a number on their leotard and brought a professional headshot and resumes.

“These are the things that are needed to dance professionally or even in college programs. We are trying to give our students the tools to be successful,” Tucci said.

During the October audition process, Hunt led a career enhancement workshop. Dancers learned how to build a resume andcomplete a portfolio with headshots, dance shots and a biography.

“It’s not just about dancing, it’s about how you present yourself,” said Hunt, a Glen Burnie High School graduate who has taught master classes in both Howard and Anne Arundel high schools.

The audition, open to all 12 Howard County high school’s dance junior and senior companies, took place at Hammond High. Student dancers were grouped together, completed warmups and phrase work, and learned choreography that would be featured in the first performance.

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Of the 219 dancers who auditioned, 24 students were selected.

Xan Hopkins, a senior at Oakland Mills High and a member of the school’s senior dance company, said the audition was an authentic experience.

“I think they did a very good job making it feel like a professional experience. Everyone was put on an even playing field,” Xan, 17, said. “We are all doing the same thing for the same reason with the same expectations.”

Being part of the ensemble makes all of the high school dance communities “feel interconnected now,” Xan said.

During the audition, Stephanie, a member of Atholton’s senior dance company, said she “felt nervous, but at the same time it was like a master class,” she said.

After the dancers were selected, they had a 24-hour window to accept. From there, the real work began.

Over a two-day period for roughly 10 hours total, Hunt and Gee taught the dancers their first performance piece.

“We choreographed a five-minute original piece for 24 dancers who had never danced together before,” Hunt said. “It was kind of crazy.”

In the professional dance world, having to learn choreography quickly is a skill set, Hunt said, and happens more than one would think.

“It sounds more intimidating than it is,” Xan said. “Eight- to 10-hour rehearsals is a lot of time to learn a piece. It made it more fun that everyone here wants to be there and everyone is so passionate.”

After being taught the movements, the dancers ran through it about two or three times, Xan said.

“Nate and Allie’s choreography is beautiful and fantastic to work with,” Xan added.

Despite the long days, the dancers were ready to work each day, with positive attitudes and mindsets, Hunt said.

“On day two, some girls walked in and said, ‘Uhh, I’m feeling it,’ but even though they were sore and tired, they were ready to go,” Hunt said.

Stephanie said the rehearsals “felt like one big community, one big family. I made friends with people from other schools.”

At the Howard County Dance Festival, where Hunt and Gee’s choreography came to life publicly for the first time, Stephanie felt empowered.

“I like the performance aspect of it … receiving energy from the audience is really nice to experience and that is empowering,” Stephanie said.

Xan, who started dancing when she was 4 years old, enjoys contemporary dance and likes to choreograph movements. Like Stephanie, Xan also dances at a private studio.

“Dance is an important part of my life. Once you made it part of your life, it doesn’t really go away,” Xan said. “Getting to have that aspect of my identity sprinkled into my education is really interesting and a lot of fun.”

The ensemble allowed for Xan and all the dancers to see how dance works in a collaborative and cooperative environment.

While the ensemble is in its pilot year, Xan knows that each subsequent year students will get something new out it.

“People who have never met before, who don’t know each other, come together and make one beautiful cohesive piece of art,” Xan said.

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