Photos by Roger MarumotoLike so many other art forms and individual sports, dance has become more and more quantitative. People don't want to watch and judge based on flay-vor and flair. Olga Korbut's big smile and single back tuck on the beam—a somersault in the air—wouldn't make an elite gymnastics judge bat an eyelash today. Dance has become all about pirouettes and high kicks, splits and leaps; and it's exciting—if you can judge this kind of dance for what it is, a competitive sport.
At Irvine Dance Academy, which merged with West Coast School of the Arts two years ago, a sporting attitude rules the studio. Dance director Paula Kessinger uses plenty of repetition, and the 100 or so competitive dancers spend hours studying everything from hip-hop and tap to ballet and jazz in order to become strong, versatile dancers.
"I would compare it to figure skating," Kessinger says. The dancers whip out five or six pirouettes in succession, do turns a la second in unison, and do something called an illusion (actually borrowed from ice skating) to score high points at competitions all over the country. At a recent regional competition at the Disneyland Hotel, they nabbed several firsts.
"Competitive dance just became big about 10 years ago," Kessinger says, "Elements like that [illusions, multiple pirouettes] started getting added in. There's a lot of tricks, and a lot of choreographers don't agree with it. A lot of choreographers are purists and think it should just be about style; others think that if you are going to compete there should be tricks."
You can render an informal decision of your own at the company's upcoming performance at the Barclay; nearly 600 of the school's 800 students will perform their routines over three days. They'll do everything from the musical comedy number "Don Juan" to David Bowie's take on "Nature Boy" from MoulinRouge,and the younger students, who are under 8 years old, will perform ballet to a medley of Frank Sinatra songs.
"My main purpose is getting them to do something the best that they can do it. The majority of them are real high achievers anyway," says Kessinger, whose students have gone on to become Laker girls, dancers in musicals, members of the convention circuit—and premed students, a career for which she says competitive dance is perfect training.
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"I think because it's such a focused thing. Those kids are really focused in everything," she says thoughtfully. For her, it starts with competition, which teaches kids how to mark their own progress.
"If they are going to do it this much, it makes it more interesting to do it as a sport," she says. "Some [dancers] are doing quad pirouettes or five, and the child that can't do it will zero in on it and try to improve."
Or pack it in and become a brain surgeon.
IRVINE DANCE/WEST COAST DANCE, BARCLAY THEATER, 4242 CAMPUS DR., IRVINE, (949) 854-4646; WWW.THEBARCLAY.ORG. FRI., 7 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 7 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. $15.