The Annapolis Middle School Dance Company hadn't completed its first year of existence when the big stage beckoned. Director Kendra Smith received a call last April from a national tour organization for school performers telling her that someone had anonymously nominated her troupe to perform at a college football bowl game.
"You know you're calling Annapolis Middle School, right?" Smith asked, knowing that such honors are usually reserved for high school programs. But she was assured that the caller had indeed specified her group and its performance at the Anne Arundel County Public School Dance Festival in February.
Last week, the 12-member company discovered that it had been chosen to perform at halftime during next year's Orange Bowl in Miami on Jan. 3, which will make it the state's first middle school ever to take the field at a college football bowl game.
The performance is a part of a four-day event for school performers. The Annapolis Middle School company will join about 1,000 other performers — including dance teams, marching bands and cheerleaders — during halftime at the 75,000-seat Sun Life Arena for one of the most eagerly anticipated bowl games of the college football season.
The honor has brought some celebrity to a school that had to convert an old technology education room to a dance studio for its dance program, now in its second year. Smith said she and her dancers were expected to be honored at Annapolis City Hall later this month, and Principal Monique Jackson says she has received scores of congratulatory e-mails.
The dancers say they're elated about the opportunity to perform at the Orange Bowl, even though some had not heard of the event before being selected.
"I know now that it's a big football game that a lot of people go to," said eighth-grade dancer Linsey Hall, "and that schools from different areas go and perform at halftime. We were lucky enough to be one of those schools this year, so we're happy about that."
Fine arts dance classes began as yearlong electives last year in Anne Arundel public middle schools, teaching classes that include ballet, choreography, dance history, tap and jazz. The curriculum has drawn instructors such as Smith, a former local and regional professional dancer from Brooklyn, N.Y., whose passion for her craft is infectious.
A 2008 Towson University graduate, Smith took to dancing as a freshman in high school and found that it fueled her desire for self-expression. "Dance gave me a home and a creative outlet for things I was dealing with personally at the time," said Smith. "I just dove in headfirst and embraced it in every aspect of my life. And I said, 'You know, how great would it be one day to have a dance program of my own?' That has been my goal since I was 15."
Before graduating from Towson, Smith taught dance to students in a Baltimore County elementary school and later served as a substitute teacher. In her first year at Annapolis Middle, she instructed more than 130 students in elective dance courses.
Then she held tryouts for the dance company and soon discovered that many students at the school, some of whom had danced in elementary school, were eager for such an opportunity in middle school.
"She's an amazing person; she gives you a hug every time she sees you," another eighth-grade dancer, Anne Lillefloren, said about Smith. "She knows so much about dance and it's a fun place to be."
Said Smith, "I really became fond of helping children learn to express themselves and find purpose and meaning in their lives. I find that the No. 1 problem with educating our students today is [helping them] understand what their purpose is, why they have this education they're being given, what are they going to do with it?"
Perhaps the dance company's biggest challenge is raising the funds to attend the event; Smith said that would cost about $1,500 per dancer. The group has staged fundraising campaigns at the U.S. Naval Academy and at Westfield Mall. The dancers are also planning a benefit concert in November.
For the dancers' parents, the Orange Bowl invitation is a bonus in an activity that has been reaping benefits since its inception.
"It keeps them busy as well as us, but kids that age have a lot of energy anyway," said Melissa Hall, Linsey's mother. "So it's better to keep them busy in something that's going to help them in the long run."