It’s hard to put into words the sheer hypersonic explosion of sound and spirit that a couple of dozen little kids can create. Their bottomless reserves of energy that can only be tapped through frantic fidgeting, the bombastic fascination that comes from learning about the world around them, the trill of a whole chorus of giggles that can erupt at any moment … it can be chaotic.
It can also be inspiring, especially when that tidal wave of youthful joie de vivre is channeled with the kind of skill, patience and experience on display at Alliance Dance Academy. If you ever want to see just how chaotic it can be, stop by when class is starting. But if you want to see what these teachers can forge from that tumult, keep watching.
“It can be a bit like herding cats,” said owner Rochelle Clarkson with a laugh. And for 40 years, she has been wrangling them like few others. At her Bluffton school, and on competition stages across the country, Clarkson has guided countless young dancers from wide-eyed tots as young as two years old to seasoned professionals.
They don’t all become professional dancers, but every student benefits from a program whose core philosophy extends far beyond the stage. “So many kids come back to me and say, ‘I didn’t realize what I was learning here,’” Clarkson said. “These kids have to have an anchor, and kids don’t always find their anchor in the public schools.”
Countless students have found their anchor at Alliance Dance Academy. “That’s why I don’t do auditions,” Clarkson said. “It’s a different philosophy, but we don’t necessarily pick the best of the best. We give everyone a chance to gain that confidence and go out there and make it happen.”
It’s a noted break from an industry that can be competitive to a fault, pushing dancers up to and beyond their limits, sacrificing childhood happiness and experiences on the altar of success. At Alliance, it’s not just about the result but about the process. Students are there to learn, not just how to dance, but how to pursue a goal and create teamwork.
“I think that’s what kind of sets us apart from other studios,” Clarkson said. “Just because your kid isn’t the best dancer, if they have the desire to do it, who am I to tell you they can’t?”
And if the awards and trophies lining the walls are any indication, it’s a philosophy that has paid huge dividends. The whole academy serves as a pipeline to the biggest stages in the country. From a child’s first dance class through the STARS program and into touring programs like LA Dance Magic, Alliance Students benefit from the years of experience each teacher brings to the studio and the inimitable environment that Clarkson has created.
If you want to see how far that journey can take a young dancer, you can stop by the studio and meet some of the older STARS. Kristine Andrade, for example, started training under Miss Rochelle when she was just three years old. “My mom could tell right away I wanted to dance because I’d run to the window as soon as we got to the studio and just watch everyone,” Andrade said. “And I was never bored. I was always excited to dance.”
Now 16 years old, Andrade is already gaining invaluable experience as a dancer and sharing her passion every chance she gets. As part of LA Dance Magic’s Senior Company, she tours the country when she’s not in school or dancing at Alliance. Her natural skill and drive played a massive role in her success, but so did the environment Alliance provided for her. “All the teachers are very sweet. They actually understand if you’re feeling bad one day; they’re here to lift you up,” she said. “Of course, they teach you, but they care. It’s just fun.”
Francesca “Frankie” Smith is another dancer at Alliance who got her start as a toddler under Clarkson’s tutelage, starting at age three. “I know I really enjoyed it when I was onstage; none of the other little girls knew what they were doing, and I was doing the whole thing,” she said with a laugh. “I knew I wanted to keep dancing.”
Keep dancing she did, now starting her second year with LA Dance Magic while still dancing and competing at the academy. “It’s such a cool experience, getting to meet so many people across the country,” she said. “Seeing other people grow has inspired me to grow more.”
And it helps her continue to grow, having been a student in the very same academy. “There are a couple kids that I’ll see running around and I’ll think to myself, ‘That was totally me at that age.’”
For Erin McMahon, who started at age two, dancing has always been the cornerstone, but her journey at Alliance Dance Academy has also revealed a love of teaching. “I knew I really wanted to teach after assisting last year. It was really fun,” she said.
Clarkson agreed. “She’s a gifted teacher. Not all great dancers can teach, and she can do both really well.”
McMahon leans toward hip hop dancing, as she has since joining the competition team at age five, but now she finds herself the elder statesman at just 16 years old. “I love them sometimes, but then I have to rein them back in,” she said. “We want them to have fun, but we want them to know they’re in class. But mostly have fun.”
And that seems to be the recurring theme when you enter Alliance Dance Academy and witness the full force of youthful vigor unleashed. These dancers train hard, learn from the best, and go on to explore their own role in the world of dance and life. They take their craft seriously and pursue it with diligence. But you need only listen to the regular outbursts of laughter to know they have a blast doing it.
Visit alliancedanceacademy.com to learn more.