COLUMBIA — Zach Young is an avid golfer, former member of a softball league and has a first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He could be considered a “sports guy,” and as a dancer of the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, athleticism pays off.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” he said of the company, “but fun at the same time.”
Born and raised in Columbia, Young, now 23, is the older of two children. His father, a sculptor, and mother, a political science teacher, met while attending Columbia College and had dance class together. In their youth, Young’s younger sister, Sydney, took to dance. Meanwhile, Zach studied the martial arts.
However, after seeing his sister perform in a recital at Dancearts of Columbia, he realized there were more forms of dance than he thought and his interest was piqued. By 10, he began taking lessons at the same studio as Sydney and later enrolled at the Columbia Performing Arts Academy.
“I saw dance as a way to show my emotions,” Young said, “and performing was my favorite part of the process.”
After he earned his black belt in the eighth grade, Young was able to devote more time to dance. When he graduated from Rock Bridge High School, he became one of the members of what was then called Cedar Lake Youth Ensemble, a pre-professional dance group that he describes as the minor leagues of dance. Young never considered becoming a professional until his work with Cedar Lake. “Until then, I just danced for fun.”
Young was one of two male dancers in Cedar Lake, but this was hardly an uncommon situation for him. In fact, he is the only man currently in the Missouri Contemporary Ballet.
“More guys should get involved in dance,” he said. “The ones who start young tend to quit.”
It’s much easier for men to get a position within a dance company because they are always in need. “They don’t know what opportunities they’re missing,” Young said.
Cedar Lake Youth Ensemble lasted for a year before the program’s director, Karen Grundy, decided to expand, which resulted in the creation of Cedar Lake II. Young danced in the group before joining Missouri Contemporary Ballet, another project of Grundy’s.
In the winter of 2003-2004, Young was recruited to work with the Cuba National Ballet in Havana. Because he didn’t know Spanish, he felt intimidated, but he found the dancers amazing to work with. “Being there made me realize I didn’t want to do classical ballet,” he said. “I couldn’t express myself and move the way I wanted to like in contemporary ballet.”
Some time after settling back in Columbia, Young continued to work with the Missouri Contemporary Ballet. “We’re like a family here,” he said. “You don’t see that in a lot of the dance world.”
Thirty hours a week are dedicated to the company, and every weekday, Young drives to Mexico, Mo., to practice with them. The group, which has six permanent members, must rehearse there while the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts is under renovation.
“I don’t get a lot of time to sleep or do much of anything,” Young said.
Three days a week, he goes from rehearsal in Mexico to assisting Gin Lee with a hip-hop class at the Columbia Center of Performing Arts.
Lee met Young more than 10 years ago when he was at Dancearts, and he has assisted her for three years.
“It’s great to have seen him grow into a man,” she said. “He was my student, and now that he’s an adult, he’s become one of my closest friends.”
She said his upbeat attitude helps her keep the same mindset throughout class.
Although the classes include people of various ages, Young especially enjoys working with children — though he doesn’t consider himself the best teacher, because he doesn’t like to discipline much. Even so, Lee said, he always gives 100 percent.
“He has the passion,” she said. “It’s in his heart. He doesn’t do this for the money. For him, dance is about dance.”