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Putting art into excellence: a Texas studio breaks out of the pack.

A hush comes over the auditorium as 19-year old Jessica Hailey begins her solemn walk across the stage at the Showstopper regional competition in Houston. Her gentle poise alone would grab attention, but there's more going on here. Several dancers join her in a pensive, but proud march. When they burst into fluid dancing to an Ani DiFranco poem, the piece unfolds in broad sweeping movements, keeping with the theme of yearning for a better world that DiFranco's haunting music implies.

The crowd knows these dancers by reputation. The Spring, Texas, competition team of North Harris Performing Arts consistently shows innovative choreography, strong technique, and eclectic musical choices. The studio has amassed enough awards that audiences know to listen, watch, and learn when its dancers take the stage. NHPA dares to be different. They emphasize the artistic side of competition.

Owned by a group of eight dancers who range in age from 19-30, NHPA sets a high standard for presenting compelling choreography at competitions. Rather than rely on attention getting tricks, NHPA competition teams win awards with complex group composition and choreography that relates meaning fully to the music. A fouette may start out looking familiar but will morph into something entirely unexpected. "They could do tricks if they wanted to," boasts Amy Cain, the senior teacher and lead choreographer. "The movement we do requires specific focus on initiation from the core, allowing breath to articulate the quality of the movement. Besides, in any form of art the purpose is to imagine, to create--not to copy and conform."

There's nothing fancy about NHPAs modest three-studio facility nestled in a quiet suburb oF Houston. Judging from trophies that jam the studio shelves, and enrollment of more than 300, the owner/directors have reason to be proud. "We pretty much clean up," says one of the youngest competitors Amanda Winter, 12, with a grin. "It feels good to be doing something different than everybody else."

In 2005 they won the senior large group "Overall Outstanding Performance" at Stage One Productions nationals in Dallas. They had an impressive showing at the Showstopper 2006 Mid America finals in Austin, where they walked away with a good share of the awards for solos, duets, and group entries including first place in video championships for seniors and juniors.

The entire faculty emphasizes artistry regardless of whether they are teaching ballet, lyrical jazz, or hip hop. Cain has studied with Ken McCulloch, Wes Veldink, and members of Houston Ballet, and regularly travels to Los Angeles and New York to update her training. "We stress body awareness in all the classes," says Cain. It shows, even in the carriage by which the dancers enter and leave the stage. Ballet, jazz/lyrical, and leaps and turns classes are mandatory for the studio's 75 competitive dancers, but most study tap, hip hop, and modern as well. Students range in age from 7-18, with a ratio of one boy per ten girls. Cain, a certified Pilates teacher, also offers mat classes. The dancers' core strength is evident in their mature stage presence and technical finesse.

NHPA runs a tight, but manageable, performing season: one pre-show public performance for the community at the local college theater, two regionals and one national competition, and a final studio recital. This well-thought-out schedule keeps the dancers busy, but not exhausted.

Showstopper in April is a regular event and each year they sample other competitions for the second slot, seeking out competitions with qualified judges and an age-appropriate sensibility. If scantily clad 7-year-olds bring home the trophies, it's not a match for NHPAs values. "The judges at Showstopper appreciate what we do with our choreography," says Cain. "They seem to understand our artistic values. That is not always the case in the competition world."

To prepare for the DiFranco dances, Cain had each dancer write about what DiFranco's words mean in their own lives. "I bring my journal to competitions," says 18-year old Jane Thayer, one of the lead dancers. "Reading it right before I perform helps connect me to the song's message."

Cain prefers alternative music like Damien Rice's arresting song, Blower's Daughter "Our general guideline is that if a song is played on the radio or is on the Top 40 Charts, we try to steer clear of it," says Cain. "We see way too many dances to Lady Marmalade and Lose Control.

Originality can also be Found in their costuming choices. About half are purchased, but the rest are designed and sewn by Thayer, who serves as the group's seamstress.

Many of the competitors assist in teaching classes, which builds leadership and places the students in a mentorship role. Cain and her Faculty themselves perform in a company they started two years ago, Revolve. They take daily class from each other, and compete in the professional/amateur category. Cain and co-owner, Dawn Dippel, performed in Dominic Walsh's Romeo & Juliet last spring. The faculty also encourages students to attend area dance concerts including the Houston International Dance Coalition's Dance Salad Festival and Houston Ballet.

Cain would like to see more challenging choreography on the competition stage, but for now, she is happy that it's NHPA that is doing something different. "We want to set an example for the kids," says Cain. "And the one way we Feel we can communicate knowledge to them is by demonstration: taking care to master our craft in good health, with focused technique and artistic vision."

Nancy Wozny is the dance editor of Dance Source Houston and teaches Feldenkrais.
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Title Annotation:COMPETITIONS: Winning Ways; North Harris Performing Arts
Author:Wozny, Nancy
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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