Howard County Times
Howard County

‘It’s a lifelong process’: Atholton hosts Howard County Dance Festival as school system expands dance offerings

Hundreds of students twisted, twirled and leaped across Atholton High School’s auditorium stage on Saturday at the 2023 Howard County Dance Festival in Columbia.

A sold-out audience snapped and clapped to the emotionally charged performances, part of the 27th in-person dance festival, the first in person since before the pandemic.


“I always love performing and that feeling that you get when you’re on the stage,” said Meghan Reeb, 17, a member of Howard High School’s senior dance company. “Dancing about something that you actually care about and an important message is always amazing.”

Students in a collage of colors, from black 1950s-style poodle skirts to bedazzled leotards, danced to a variety of songs including Michael Jackson’s “Bad” and “Charleston” by Bob Wilson and his Varsity Rhythm Boys. Performing to music by Canadian singer-songwriter Jon Bryant, Reeb’s company wanted to spread awareness about school violence and ended its number by holding up placards spelling out “Stop the hate.”


“Dancing is a lifelong process, it is a lifelong hobby,” said HCPSS Superintendent Michael Martirano, who himself won a dance contest to the song “Billie Jean” in college and had his father-daughter wedding dance go viral on YouTube in 2016. “We all know that we need to be connected to each other after COVID for our own mental health.”

The festival emphasized the unifying and healing power of dance as junior and senior dance companies from all 12 of the county’s public high schools showcased their training.

“Each of these young people who are going to be dancing, they’re helping to reignite the flames of hope,” said County Executive Calvin Ball at the start of the evening. “To be able to come here together, when we’ve had one of the most challenging times in our county, our state, our nation, our world history, just reminds us all of what’s on the horizon.”

Dance at a glance in Howard

Saturday’s performances were a testament to resources the county has invested in dance since the festival began in the mid-1990s.

About 1,300 students are enrolled in dance courses this year across the Howard public school system, according to fine arts coordinator Gino Molfino, who oversees dance, theater and visual arts at HCPSS. In addition to fielding audition-based junior and senior dance companies, all HCPSS high schools offer four levels of dance classes.

“We’re providing really great access to those programs and those high-level expectations out of the courses at every one of our schools, not just one or two of them, which is a huge difference between other districts and ours,” Molfino said.

Unlike other Maryland school districts, Howard also doesn’t run genre-specific courses such as jazz or ballet. HCPSS dance classes are comprehensive and meant to simultaneously introduce students to a range of different techniques, choreography and dance history, and to provide students with jumping off points for further exploration.

While dance was historically only offered at the high school level, this is the first school year an elective “Dance A” course is being taught at select county middle schools. Molfino said the program will add a second level course for middle schoolers next year and expand to even more buildings.

The 2022-2023 All-County Dance Performance Ensemble performs "Guardians at the Gate" during act I of the Howard County Dance Festival.

“The goal is always to hook and get kids to understand the importance of the arts and how it fits into their long-term goals,” he added.

Dance classes provide a number of benefits to students, Molfino said, such as critical thinking, team building and communication skills. Martirano pointed to research that shows dancing also releases endorphins and has been proven to reduce chronic stress levels.

“For all those reasons, I am so committed as a superintendent to the arts,” Martirano said. “Never will we cut dance from the Howard County Public School System.”

A countywide showcase of talent

Howard County high schools’ junior and senior dance companies are the most advanced classes within the district, requiring students to audition before a panel of adjudicators who recommend placement in one of the ensembles or a lower-level course.

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“We want to make sure that we’re engaging kids at a level that they’re both going to be challenged but they’re also going to feel really comfortable coming in,” Molfino said.

While each high school hosts its own annual showcase, the festival is an opportunity to present talent from across the county to community members.


“It’s so fun to see the different styles that each of the schools have, because there’s all [these] nuances and differences between them,” said Susan Bobo, whose daughter, Anna, performed a high-octane jive and tap dance with Atholton’s junior dance company.

“It felt like a marathon in three minutes,” said Anna, 18.

This year’s festival also featured the 2022-2023 All-County Dance Performance Ensemble, 30 dancers selected from county high schools and choreographed by guest artist Stephanie Powell of Baltimore Dance Tech and the Carver Center for Arts and Technology. While the all-county team opened the show, it closed with a parade of 330-plus dance company performers, who spread throughout the auditorium and bowed as music swelled.

“It’s a way for all of us who have this shared passion to come together and dance,” said Yadiana Diaz-Cruz, 15, an Atholton sophomore and dancer in her school’s senior company. “A lot of people came to support us. It was a full show, so that just makes me feel emotional.”

To learn more about dance offerings at HCPSS, visit: