The Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) is described by Aimee String, Director at Tatiana Akinfieva Dance Academy (TADA) Dance Studio, as the “Olympics of the dance world.” The competition is the largest global network of dance and each year dancers compete in qualifying events internationally hoping to qualify for the finals in New York City. The regional event was held in Philadelphia with 13 more regional events held across the United States. Even more events were held internationally.
“The dancers take master classes, attend scholarship auditions and compete in a competition,” Ms. String said. “TADA took 13 dancers, three teachers and an entourage of moms, dads, aunts, grandmothers and fans. We took 21 different competition entrees and compete din all three categories, Classical Variation, Contemporary and Ensemble.” Dancers who competed included Karsyn Bradley, Rylie Calvello, Olivia Caraballo, Alayna DeBaca, Makenzie Dee, Emily Dittman, Ellie Hardee, Julian Kerr, Ariana Knowles, Emma Moorman, Aidan Robbins and Juliana Warnock. Teachers who travelled to the competitor included Bliss Soucek, Misty Yencer and Ms. String.
Ms. String said that the TADA dancer performances were outstanding and the dancers were recognized in several ways at a competition that is the most prestigious in the world.
“Every one of our dancers danced beautifully,” Ms. String said. “Ariana Knowles was singled out by the founder of YAGP to be recommended for acceptance and scholarships for summer and year-round dance programs. Eight of our dancers auditioned for the Rock’s Schools’ Summer Dance Intensive and all of them were accepted. Two were offered scholarships and a third was offered a scholarship to attend the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s Summer Intensive.” The eight dancers who were granted acceptance to the summer dance intensive were Karsyn Bradley, Alayna DeBaca, Ellie Hardee, Julian Kerr, Ariana Knowles, Emma Moorman, Aidan Robbins and Juliana Warnock. Julian Robbins and Juliana Warnock received scholarships to Rock’s Schools’ while Ariana Knowles was awarded the scholarship to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
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Julian Kerr said that the trip to YAGP was for nothing more than experience and that she really did not go for the competition aspect.
“I love the atmosphere of this competition because it feels like we are about to perform in a recital or production, not the world’s most prestigious ballet competition,” Ms. Kerr said. “I felt very nervous before I went on stage, but as soon as I was on, all the nerves were gone and I was just there dancing for not only the audience but for myself.”
Ms. Yencer said that dancers as young as nine performed in the competition, performing solos in classical ballet as well as contemporary. Two dancers competed in a classical ballet duet and five girls completed a small group contemporary ensemble and ten in a large contemporary ensemble. One of the ensemble pieces, “Awake My Soul,” choreographed by Victoria Brown-O’Brien and performed by Julian Kerr, Ariana Knowles, Emma Moorman, Aidan Robbins and Juliana Warnock, placed third overall in the Ensemble category. Ms. String said that there were no limits in the category and many other ensembles had dancers that were much older and more experienced. The third-place win qualified the dancers to travel to New York to compete for the finals.
“When we found out we got third place in one of the biggest competitions ever, I felt like my heart stopped,” Ms. Moorman said. “It was amazing to have our studio win an award. Now we get to go to Nationals in New York. I would never have thought this could happen for us. It is unbelievable.” Ms. Kerr said that when they announced that their Ensemble piece was awarded third place, “our jaws dropped and everything stopped.” She said it made her very proud to earn third place out of 33 entrants at a competition of this caliber.
Ms. Soucek said that the oldest dancer in the competition was 14 years old and to have this kind of success at such young ages is phenomenal. She said that it truly shows the time, dedication and passion for dance the students have paid off not only with the third-place award, but with the scholarships awarded to dancers from the studio.
“Ariana Knowles earned scholarships throughout the competition to attend intensive training,” Ms. Soucek said. “Out of 100 dancers in her age division, she was selected by the director to not only attend different ballet schools, but to receive scholarships in order to attend them.”
Ms. Yencer said the announcement of the third-place win was one of the highlights of the competition since the first time the dance studio performed at YAGP was last year. Bliss Soucek, a teacher at the studio, escorted only two dancers to the competition in Pittsburgh the year before, so the group still felt as if they were the newcomers to the competition when they performed this year.
“It was such an emotional and proud moment for so many reasons,” Ms. Yencer said. “The girls have performed this piece three times now. They competed last January at NYCDA and they did a great job. We all knew there was work to do. So we took the feedback we got from the judges and used that with our dancers, not just for this piece, but for all their training. They performed the piece again in August at a scholarship fundraising event. In just seven months, we could already see how much the girls had changed and applied what we taught them. Another reason this piece is special to me is that my daughter, Victoria Tatiana Brown-O’Brien, choreographed this piece and worked with all the girls tirelessly. Tori has a gift that sees and feels music like my grandmother, Tatiana.” Ms. Yencer said that it makes her smile when she sees her grandmother, who the studio is named for, in her daughter. She says she has no doubt that her grandmother is just as overjoyed and honored watching over what the dancers at the studio have accomplished.
Ms. String says that she, too, could not be prouder of the dancers. She said qualifying for the finals in only their second year of the competition was beyond anything she could have dreamed of and that it is validation that the young studio is doing amazing things.
“My very proudest moment was witnessing the genuine love and support between our dancers and their parents,” Ms. String said. “They were all each other’s biggest fans. It is really special to be a part of that.” Ms. Yencer said that she feels blessed that her grandmother left behind the legacy she did and that she, along with the help of great people, can keep it going in her grandmother’s memory.
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