COLUMBIA — When 12-year-old Taylor Liscum talks about dance, her lightly freckled face flushes and she gets hyper, bouncing up and down on her toes. It’s been her world since she was 2 years old.
At 7, Taylor happened to be at an audition for a competitive dance team. She had no plans to try out, but after a few words from an encouraging dance instructor, Taylor worked up the nerve and gave it her all — and became a member of the competitive dance team at Dancearts of Columbia.
Competitive dance includes a variety of styles, including modern, hip-hop, jazz and ballroom. It’s a way for dancers to show their ability, personal style and the “intricacy of their level,” said Marie Robertson, co-owner and director of Dancearts, a studio that has taken teams to competitions since 1979.
Though many see competitive dance as a recreational activity, it is beginning to be viewed as a sport and has recently taken on the name “dancesport,” a term originally applied to competitive ballroom dancing, and with good reason.
“Athletes don’t have to be dancers, but dancers have to be athletes,” Robertson said.
It takes more than stretching at the barre; dancers need the strength and stamina to perform routines without becoming exhausted. They do sit-ups, push ups and other activities one would expect to see during a warm-up at a soccer practice. A little bit of acting skills pay off, too, because expressions on the dancers’ faces as they perform help to set the mood.
Dancers may make intricate movements and high leaps seem effortless on stage, but a lot of work goes into preparing for competitions. Shortly after this year’s auditions in June, the chosen dancers at Dancearts had an intense, three-week training session from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the weekdays in July.
“This is a very serious activity,” Robertson said. “Dancers really have to work hard.”
On top of rehearsals and practices, team members are required to take a technique class that corresponds with the routine they are selected to perform. Team members attend their chosen class throughout the entire competitive season, which lasts for one year. The dancers must also enroll in a ballet class because it is the basis for several dance forms.
“As you get more advanced in your studies,” Robertson said, “Many movements, such as piqué and chassé, become more ballet-oriented, and a dancer picks these up better when in a ballet class.”
In competitive dance, commitment goes hand in hand with talent. Dancearts competition members and their parents must sign a contract stating that more than three unexcused absences from rehearsals and classes will lead to removal from the team.
Such high standards pay off, and it shows. Along the walls in the room where the dancers warm up are large and small trophies from events such as the Regional Talent Competition, LA Underground Dance Convention and the New York City Dance Alliance.
A popular competition among the girls at Dancearts is Tremaine Dance Convention and Competitions. Held in several cities, such as Las Vegas and Orlando, and headed by world-renowned choreographer Joe Tremaine and dance educator Julie Adler, the goal of Tremaine is to enhance a dancer’s education not only by competing but also by taking classes taught by professional choreographers from around the country.
Twelve-year-old Emily Starkey said getting to work with the accomplished choreographers at Tremaine is one of the benefits of being a competitive dancer, and it’s one of the best ways to improve.
“People do this because they love to dance,” Liscum added, “and it’s awesome to get these kinds of opportunities.”
However, Dancearts’ team doesn’t have to wait for Tremaine to get the opportunity to work with other choreographers. Andrij Cybyk, a master of Ukrainian folk dance, regularly guest teaches at Dancearts during the summer and also choreographed one of their competition pieces for the upcoming year.
Titled “Laundry Girls by the Stream,” the dance recreates a moment from traditional Ukrainian life. With feet clad in character shoes — similar to Mary Janes with heels — shuffling and tapping across the floor, the 10 “laundry girls” wave their colorful garments and toss them into wicker baskets. They wipe invisible sweat from their brows, embodying the exhaustion of a hard day’s work of doing laundry.
Working with guest choreographers and other dancers teaches professionalism as well, Robertson said. “It’s important to know how to act in class. With respect comes appreciation for constructive criticism and the ability to grow from it.”
In turn, the choreographers learn from the dancers. The girls have taken Robertson by surprise, and she has learned to give them more credit. “At times, I wasn’t sure how well some of the girls would do in competition,” Robertson said. “But they really step up to the plate.”
Those who want to get involved in competition need to have a passion to dance and desire to learn, Robertson said. Emily Starkey has been on the Dancearts team for two years and said she’s always loved to dance. “It’s in my blood, it’s my personality,” she said. “Competition was a great way for me to dance more.”