On a late weekday afternoon, Studio Bleu Dance Center in Ashburn was bustling. In one pink-walled studio, eight adolescent girls in leotards watched their ballet instructor carefully as she demonstrated a sequence of steps. In another room a few doors down, a co-ed group of younger children, ages five to seven, were in the middle of a jazz technique class. Near the lobby, a lineup of kids formed along the wall to help each other with homework, as the flow of new arrivals continued through the front doors.
“There’s a lot going on!” said studio owner Kimberly Rishi.
It was something of an understatement: Dancers at the studio are preparing to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York next month, and have also been invited to perform at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Over 2,100 students – competitive and recreational alike – attend more than 300 classes every week at the dance center, which announced this month that it was ranked the third Top Studio in the United States by the Federation of Dance Competitions.
The ranking was the first time the studio had been recognized by the FCD, Rishi said; Studio Bleu also won the FDC Studio Excellence Award, presented this year to 13 studios nationally.
Michelle Kresge, Vice President of the Federation of Dance Competitions, said Studio Bleu was awarded the rank based on its competitive dance team’s performance at a number of local and national competitions.
“They had a lot of winning routines,” Kresge said. “They’re a very high-quality, highly recognized studio in the nation.”
The Studio Bleu competitive dance team is unique for a couple of reasons, Rishi said — the 250-member team, with members ranging in age from three years old to 18, is the largest in the country; and any dancer at the studio can be a part of it.
“This is not a competitive studio within,” Rishi said. Students who want to join the competitive team go through a kind of mock-audition, she explained; they perform for judges just so they can have that experience, but any dancer can join the group so long as they’re willing to commit to the time and dedication required.
“It’s open to anybody, which is very different,” she said. “Recreational students and competitive dancers are treated and focused on equally. We want them all to feel good about what they’re doing.”
That spirit of inclusion has remained a constant even as the studio has grown from a tiny start-up to a prominent national competitor, she said.
The studio opened in Sterling in 1989 as The Academy of Dance and Music, under the ownership of Aranetta Manley, a ballet dancer from Pittsburgh. Back then, there were just two rooms and sixty students, Rishi said.
In over two decades since, the studio’s growth has been exponential. After relocating to Ashburn five years ago, the studio now boasts a staff of 25 teachers. The classes continue to cover all varieties of dance, including hip hop, jazz, tap, contemporary, and ballet, among other styles.
“We want to have a balanced, well-rounded program,” Rishi said.
The studio regularly brings master choreographers and guest dancers to work with students, she said. In one of the center’s largest studios, personal messages from these visitors are scrawled in black marker on the sunny yellow walls. Among the many names are Savion Glover, renowned tap dancer and Tony Award-winning choreographer of ‘Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,’ and a lineup of all-star dancers from the Fox hit series “So You Think You Can Dance.”
The studio has also produced stars of its own. Numerous dancers have studied with prominent dance companies, including the American Ballet Theatre and The Joffrey Ballet, and several have gone on to become professional dancers and teachers themselves.
One the most famous of Studio Bleu’s dancers is also one of its youngest. Luke Spring, 8, first started dancing when he was five years old. When he was six, he appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime talk show, “Ellen,” and later wowed the crowds at the D.C. Tap Festival. He also performed last year at the “So You Think You Can Dance” finale in Los Angeles.
Beyond learning dance steps and technique, Rishi said the studio aims to help young dancers build a strong sense of leadership and teamwork.
Rishi remembered when a team of seven teenage dancers won first place at a national talent competition in D.C. in July. After the girls won, they raced for Rishi’s phone and asked if they could call choreographer Marinda Davis to thank and congratulate her.
Rishi said she was touched by how humble and appreciative the girls were.
“That was a greater moment for me than winning. I could see that they were really applying all of the life lessons that we’re trying to teach here.”