Utah Can Dance 0
Originally published in Salt Lake magazine

Utah Can Dance

THE REST OF THE WORLD is discovering Utah’s talented pool of dancers and choreographers. What took them so long?

It started, in a way, with Footloose, the 1984 movie about teens in a town where dance was forbidden. The film put Utah on Hollywood’s radar as an untapped resource of hard-working, fresh-faced, fleet-footed dancers. Local youths filled out the chorus line as extras while the leads—foremost, a young Kevin Bacon—leapt across train cars with the Wasatch Mountains and the now-iconic Lehi Roller Mills as a backdrop.

Twenty-four years later, multitudes of Utahns have found their way onto screens large and small, as casting directors explore Utah’s pool of well-trained dancers. The trend spiked upward with the High School Musical films, which once again put Utah’s talented populace in the limelight.

And, along the way, Utah dancers began to excel on reality dance programs, several of them winning on shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars.

Though it may surprise those who view Utah as a straight-laced state—much like the fictional small town in Footloose—there is a tradition of dance here that goes back to our roots. And while dance in all its forms makes a comeback across the nation, it seems the rest of the country has finally caught up to Utah.

One dancer, one syllable

On a snowy morning last February, when So You Think You Can Dance rolled into town for open auditions, thousands of dancers waited in the cold outside the Capitol Theatre for their turn. Salt Lake was one of the six cities where the program held auditions. Of the thousands of hopeful applicants across the country, only 20 were chosen to compete for last’ summer’s title of “America’s Favorite Dancer;” of those 20, four came from Utah.

But several Utahns are already dancing their dreams. Take Roger Malaga, who is known in Salt Lake’s dance world as just “Ro.” When you’ve got enough name recognition to go down to one syllable, you know you’ve got mad skills. The short moniker suits Ro’s quick moves and open personality just fine.

Ro has been an essential part of the dance machine in Utah: A principal dancer in High School Musicals 1, 2 and 3; an assistant choreographer for HSM 3; a principal dancer in MTV’s American Mall.

The one thing Ro hasn’t done, yet, is quit his day job. You might think this level of success makes life all limousines and designer jeans, but Ro’s highly trained feet still touch pavement. He teaches at several dance studios across the valley, and his main goal in life is to improve kids’ lives through dance.

Ro also wants his students to learn a professional work ethic so they’ll know the etiquette of upper-level classes and auditions. “We push for the best in students,” Ro says, “but we want to teach courtesy and develop characteristics they can take into the job.” Which might be  part of the reason producers love working with kids from Utah.

And as more professional work comes this way, more ways of being in the profession come too—directing, teaching, choreographing, lighting, costuming and stage work. For some dancers, camera time equals instant celebrity, but shows don’t last forever, and dancers are always auditioning for the next job.

So, some night while you’re watching Ro dance across the screen in the biggest dance movie of the year, he’ll be in Sandy, Utah, working at his “day job,” the graveyard shift at a treatment house for Utahns with autism.

In Utah, dance’s roots go deep

What lies behind Utah’s dance success is hardly a secret, and certainly no accident. As she waited in line for SYTYCD auditions last winter, BYU student Jessica Wilcox put it this way: “[The LDS church] emphasizes the importance of the arts as a way to signify and glorify God and our message.”

It’s a common thread in Utah’s history of encouraging children to become involved in the performing arts. When pioneers first settled in the valley and entertainment was hard to find, they established Mormon road shows; children and families performed for their wards, serving the dual purpose of entertainment and glorifying God. Though the road shows are gone, the dedication to dance remains.

Not all of Utah’s talent are Latter-day Saints, and not all of those would express their beliefs as concretely as Wilcox. But her sentiments echo a common theme that runs through Utah’s dance community, which encourages the joy of performance and the honest investigation of the art form.

“[Performing in Mormon road shows] wasn’t about competition; it was about fun, joy and carrying a message,” explains Mary Ann Lee, a scion of another type of dance pioneer in Utah. Lee is the artistic director for Children’s Dance Theatre, a group founded by Virginia Tanner, the state’s patron saint of modern dance.

Tanner, born in Salt Lake City in 1915, established the CDT in 1949, and her lifelong commitment to dance in Utah helped earn a grant in 1966 to seed another troupe, Repertory Dance Theatre. These two institutions have been instrumental in the education of the state’s dancers, as well as its audiences.

Today, CDT remains a vital part of the Utah dance community, performing for more than 45,000 Utahns every year, and making dance accessible to families and children.

Think of CDT as an incubator, a part of Salt Lake’s healthy dance community, which feeds its talent into university dance programs, professional dance careers or, simply, a lifetime of enjoying and supporting the art.

Lee believes that producers for reality dance shows have unintentionally fallen into something that is working, but they really don’t understand what it is.

“In the Tanner program, we focus on the creative process and not competitive dance,” says Lee. “But I think what you have here in Utah is an elevation of the art form, with children and young people embracing [it].”

“The gift we’re giving children is in their hearts,” Lee says. “It is the confidence that comes from knowing themselves and feeling great about themselves.”

The cutting edge

Long before reality dance shows cast a spell on American television viewers, Utah choreographer Rick Robinson was thrilling audiences with the “triple threat”—a combination of hip-hop, ballroom and jazz. The combination of disciplines has become essential for any serious dancer, but at Robinson’s Vibe Performing Arts Center in Lindon, it’s nothing new. In fact, Robinson and co-director Kellie Messerly have been guiding young dancers to stardom with this approach for years.

But the visual fireworks of the triple threat, combined with the vast reach of television, has created a perfect storm, with Robinson at its vortex. Two of his students, dance partners Brittany Cherry and Brandon Armstrong, both 13, won Dancing with the Stars’ new junior championship this spring.

“These are two very talented kids,” Robinson said. “They’re accustomed to working hard and are quick to pick up material.”

Brittany and Brandon may be the most famous of Robinson’s dance progeny right now, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. Vibe’s competition teams amaze judges and dancers around the country. “When we go to Chicago and do hip-hop, the locals are astounded that we are from Utah. They’re like ‘Uh, Utah?’”

“I think our kids seem to have a special drive and artistry,” says Messerly. “These shows present opportunities on the national level to perform and possibly start a career.”

For a long time, the possibility of a career in dance was a pipe dream.

“There wasn’t the work out there when we were young,” says Robinson. “So the reality show opportunity is a change for the better,” adds Messerly. “And, yes, some people question the integrity of some of the shows, but earning a paycheck is good!”

Dance in the schools

According to the National Dance Association, Utah leads the nation in high school dance programs. Other states have myriad drill teams and cheerleading squads, but Utah tops the list for programs that are “artistic in nature and taught by qualified dance educators.”

No one appreciates this more than high school dance teacher Sofia Gorder. With a master’s in dance and a professional performance career, she knows that academics can launch dancers into the national spotlight.

“In school, we teach the academic piece: abstraction, composition, and how to [communicate] through movement,” says Gorder. “And then students go to studios after school and become skilled in ballet and jazz technique. So when they go to auditions, they are the total package.”

Gorder always knew Utah supported dance, but it wasn’t until last year, when her department at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City went through the state accreditation process, that she recognized to what extent.

She tosses a 50-page document onto her desk: “This is Utah’s state curriculum standards for dance,” she says. “The federal government outlines their guidelines for dance in seven bullet points.”

“I think Children’s Dance Theater and its approach to the dancer as a whole child has had an enormous impact on Utah’s substantial state curriculum,” says Gorder. And when the state mandates artistic integrity in the schools, it’s no surprise that when Utah dancers go to New York or L.A., they hit the ground jetéing.

Gorder herself is the perfect example. “I grew up dancing in Utah,” she says. “I truly did not think of it

as an extracurricular activity. It seemed like an academic pursuit.”

Before finishing her degree at the U, Gorder successfully danced in New York City, but decided  to return home and complete her degree.

“I loved the energy of New York,” she remembers. “But I looked around and realized that there is a lot

of depth in Salt Lake’s dance community and that  there was a niche for me to fill. Suddenly, dancing  in New York no longer seemed any more valid to  me than in Utah.”

Strictly Ballroom

“There are more youth-aged ballroom dancers in Utah than in the entire rest of the world,” says Scott Asbell, program director for Utah Valley University’s ballroom dance program. UVU, along with BYU, is a ballroom powerhouse, frequently winning international competitions.    

All of this explains why you see so many Utahns on shows like Dancing with the Stars—Julianne Hough, Ashly DelGrosso and several other DWTS alums hail from the Beehive State.

For Asbell, it has its pros and cons. “Reality shows have given a lot of highly talented kids a degree of exposure,” Asbell said. “But sometimes it’s sort of like the circus has come to town and left with my dancers.”

A Dance Oddessy: Professional jazz dance in Utah

Odyssey Dance Theatre was founded 15 years ago by artistic director Derryl Yeager, who returned home to Utah after closing the chapter on a successful performing career on stage and screen in Los Angeles.

Yeager was well aware of the talented range of trained dancers in Utah, and decided to establish Utah’s first and only jazz company. Odyssey soon began performing sold out home seasons and international tours.

Yeager brought Bonnie Story, the Emmy-Award wining choreographer of High School Musical, on board as associate director two years ago, and regularly invites big name choreographers to work with the company. Two of the four dancers from Salt Lake City (Matthew  Dorame  and Thayne Riley Jasperson) who made it into last season’s So You Think You Can Dance Top 20 were from Odyssey. Exceptional stage presence combined with cross-discipline training (ballet/jazz/hip-hop) form the conditions for Yeager’s dancers to find success on reality dance programs.

Originally published in Salt Lake magazine, October 2008.