The Jim Rouse Theatre saw wave after wave of color and motion on Saturday: Flapper dresses, polka dot rocker skirts, leotards, Flamenco gowns, bow ties and short and full-length gowns flowed across the stage in jazz, ballet, contemporary, modern, African, tap and lyrical dance.
“Dance is about coming together as a family, as a group and displaying everything you have to offer,” said Julia Gruppo, a 16-year-old dancer from Centennial High School.
Unity was a strong theme of the 25th annual Howard County Dance Festival, which brought together some 500 county students in a celebration of dance at the theater at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.
The festival — part show, part judging and instruction — brings together students in Howard County schools’ dance education program in its 12 area high schools.
The dancers performed in a morning show that was essentially a dress rehearsal. In the afternoon, they danced again for family, friends and festival adjudicators Carol Hess, a co-artistic director of the Baltimore Dance Project at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Karen Kuebler, a founding board member of the Maryland Dance Education Association.
Howard County schools offer numerous dance classes including gifted and talented classes that focus on choreography, performance and production, and meet the state’s graduation requirement for a fine arts credit.
Hammond High dance director Brooke Kuhl-McClelland said performing at the annual dance festival is required in the gifted and talented classes, but it’s also a chance for dancers to share their love of the art, get feedback from adjudicators and build relationships.
Kuhl-McClelland said many good things are happening on the stage and in school studios, and the dance fest is a place where “we try to focus on camaraderie and supporting each other.”
Proceeds from the festival — $8 per ticket — help pay for costumes, music, materials and the services of master teachers countywide.
Kuhl-McClelland, along with Dina Reyes of Mount Hebron High and Christine Estabrook of Wilde Lake, pitched the festival concept 25 years ago to Don Disney, then the school system’s coordinator of athletics.
“The three of us were pretty excited then, and we’re thrilled to be celebrating the festival’s 25th anniversary,” Reyes said. “Our vision has always been to share our passion for this wonderful art form and to showcase the growth of our talented Howard County students.”
Estabrook has taught rising stars such as Broadway and television actress Carly Hughes, a 2000 Wilde Lake graduate who has performed on Broadway and in the television show, “American Housewife.” She said that for many students, high school is their first experience with fine dance. For some, it opens a door they may never have known existed.
“We see their natural gifts and are able to nurture them,” she said.
Some students come to the school system with a desire to dance that is already honed. Hammond High School senior Christopher Miller, 17, said he has aspired since age 5 to one day become a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and has studied with noted instructors Debbie Allen and Nate Hunt.
At Hammond, he’s a male performing with more than 20 female dancers in the school’s ensemble. He said he enjoys standing out, and feels respected for his abilities.
“It’s a different environment, but I am very goal driven, disciplined and stay focused on my own sense of self,” he said.
That sense of confidence and mutual respect is a key byproduct of the annual festival.
“We cheer each other on,” said Alexa Adams, 17, also a Hammond student. Eshna Ghosh, an 18-year-old Centennial dancer, added that the festival “brings us together as a school and allows us to have fun together.”
Fifteen-year-old Kira O’Neill of Long Reach High School said she felt a bit judged by the other schools, but in a way that left her definitely wanting to participate again.
Shaniya Mayfield, 17, also of Long Reach, said the best dancers from other schools inspire her to improve her own skills, and classmate Jahniya Johnson, also 17, described the festival as a huge confidence booster.
Kerry Johnson, a Towson University student who performed at the festival while attending Hammond High, said her experiences helped her realize that dance was a way of life for her. She wants to teach one day in Howard County.
“You learn a lot of life skills through dance,” Johnson said. “I chose to pursue it because I love the experience of teaching the students and seeing their dedication to the art form.”
Also attending this year’s festival was Linda Rangos,a school system retiree who supervised the dance program until it moved from the system’s Health and Physical Education Department to the Fine Arts Department about six years ago.
Rangos is a true believer in the power of dance, both as a way to promote health and activity, and as a way to instill confidence and social skills.
Her daughters Nicole, now a medical student, and Samantha, a teacher at Wilde Lake, both danced during their high school years. Rangos said the program “increased their confidence and afforded them an amazing way to connect with a new network of friends.”
It was hard to tell who was more enthusiastic about Saturday’s festival — the students performing, their families and friends, or their teachers and mentors.
Perhaps it was Wilde Lake dance captain Lucy Flippen, 18, who said her company was thrilled to have their school host the festival.
“The [Jim Rouse Theatre] is a really nice theater, and I am so excited to share it with all the other high schools,” Flippen said. “I’ve been doing this for four years now and it’s really, really nice to have the festival here.”