Dancers step things up

Troupe: With a big competition in two weeks, 10 area girls and their teacher are fine-tuning a routine - and all that jazz.

July 18, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Before the music started, they could have been anybody - just another group of mostly teen-age girls chattering about their lives, adjusting their hair, sizing up Britney, stretching.

But then someone pushed play on the mini-boombox, and the crew of 10 became stars, no longer subject to the rules of gravity. As War's funky "Slippin' Into Darkness" filled the rehearsal room, they leapt, twirled and flew through the air, fluidly becoming one body with seemingly superb control of its 40 limbs.

Their instructor and the dance's choreographer, Winnette "Wyndee" Hughson, scowled from the sidelines.

"If you weren't here right now," she said, "I'd be screaming."

Hughson is a little tense. In two weeks, she and the Jazz- fuzion troupe - five girls from Howard County, three from Anne Arundel and two from Prince George's - will be in Chicago competing against 20 other teams for the Leo choreography award at the Jazz Dance World Congress, a five-day annual event that draws dancers and teachers from around the world to its workshops, lectures and performances.

And while the girls' mistakes were relatively minor, because of a lack of concentration rather than ability, Hughson could not help but see them.

"If the dance isn't ready when we get there," she said, "it's never going to be."

Hughson, who teaches jazz dance at the Millersville Spotlight Studio of Dance, taught the girls this routine two years ago. They've been winning student-level competitions with it ever since, including one in March at the Baltimore Convention Center.

But it is this time that really counts, especially for 32-year-old Hughson. The group will retire the routine after the Chicago performance, but the exposure they get there could be the kind that launches careers.

"This is huge. It's like the Olympics of dance," she said. "Everybody who's anybody will be there."

Hughson's daydreams have been running wild.

She wants to create a professional troupe. She wants to choreograph full time. She wants to have the dance career that scoliosis took from her years ago, even if she has to have it vicariously.

And her dancers, who range in age from 14 to 20, want to give it to her.

"It's our time to shine for Wyndee," said Samantha Levy, a 17-year-old almost senior at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City. "We're really proud of her."

Most of the girls have been dancing since they were small, having started after their mothers put them in tap and ballet classes as many mothers do for many, many daughters. The difference between those daughters and these troupe members is that something stuck.

They did not give up after turning 10 or hitting puberty or finding another hobby. They forged on with their classes through strained muscles, myriad recitals, demanding instructors and bruised bodies to become lithe athletes.

And they survived Hughson, too.

"She pushes you," said Kim Griffith who just graduated from Hammond High School in Columbia. "But it makes you better. She knows your strengths and weaknesses; she knows you as a dancer."

Marissa Montanez, who will be a senior at River Hill High School in the fall, said Hughson is her mentor: "She's made me the dancer that I am."

Montanez, 16, is all flash and muscle and energy. She laughs easily, talks over others and tears up the studio floor. But she does not want to be a professional dancer. Watching her 23-year-old sister struggle to make it discouraged her.

"It's too hard; there's too much competition," Montanez said. "I don't want to spend my life waiting tables."

Instead, she wants to be a marine biologist, but she is in the minority. Most of the other girls are set on being dancers on cruise ships, on small stages, on Broadway - wherever they can.

Griffith, who has been dancing for 15 years (since she was 3), said she will not consider anything else. Neither will 17-year-old Michelle Combs, who lives in Severn and dreams of touring as a dancer in a pop star's stage show.

"I just want to get on stage and break it down," she said.

Hughson, who lives in Germantown, started out that way. Growing up in Fort Washington, she dreamed of being a professional ballerina. But the scoliosis diagnosis put an end to that, and at 14 she turned to jazz dancing, which takes techniques from ballet and infuses them with hip-hop and freer styles.

Later, she turned from performing to teaching and has never looked back. She obviously loves it and her dancers.

"I don't have any kids; they're like my babies," she said. "It's a joy to watch what I do come through them and watch them grow up. ... I've been blessed with a talented group of girls."

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