Ashburn dance studio ranked third in nation

October 12, 2011

It’s late afternoon on a weekday, and Studio Bleu Dance Center in Ashburn is bustling. In one pink-walled studio, eight girls in leotards watch their ballet instructor carefully as she demonstrates a sequence of steps. A few doors down, a co-ed group of younger children, ages 5 to 7, are in the middle of a jazz technique class. Near the lobby, kids are lined up along a wall to help each other with homework as the flow of new arrivals through the front doors continues.

“There’s a lot going on!” studio owner Kimberly Rishi says, in 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 been invited to the next year’s Summer Olympics in London. More than 2,100 students — competitive and recreational — attend more than 300 classes every week at the dance center, which announced this month that it has been ranked third on a list of top studios in the United States by the Federation of Dance Competitions.

The ranking was the first time the studio had been recognized by the federation, Rishi said. Studio Bleu also won the federation’s 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 dance team is unique for a couple of reasons, Rishi said. The 250-member team, with dancers from from 3 to 18 years old, 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 said. They perform for judges so they can have that experience, but any dancer can join the group.

“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.”

The philosophy 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 dance center opened in Sterling in 1989 as the Academy of Dance and Music, under the ownership of Aranetta Manley, a ballet dancer from Pittsburgh. There were just two rooms and sixty students, Rishi said.

In the more than two decades since, the studio has grown by leaps and bounds. After relocating to Ashburn five years ago, the studio has a staff of 25 teachers, three of whom are former students of Manley’s. The classes cover all varieties of dance, including hip-hop, jazz, tap, contemporary and ballet.

“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 famous visitors are scrawled in black marker on the yellow walls. Among the many names are Savion Glover, a renowned tap dancer and Tony Award-winning choreographer of “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,” and a lineup of all-stars from the Fox hit series “So You Think You Can Dance,” including Ade Obayomi, a season-five finalist; Mollee Gray, a season-six finalist; and Sabra Johnson, the third-season winner.

The studio has also produced stars of its own. Numerous dancers have studied with prominent companies, including the American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, and several have gone on to become professional dancers and teachers.

One of the most famous of Studio Bleu’s dance students is also one of its youngest. Luke Spring, 8, started dancing when he was 5 years old. When he was 6, he appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show “Ellen” and later wowed crowds at the D.C. Tap Festival. He performed at the “So You Think You Can Dance” finale in Los Angeles last year, an experience that he described as “really fun.”

“When I walked out onstage, I was a little nervous.”

Justin Lewis, a professional tap dancer who leads Studio Bleu’s pre-professional tap company, said performing with Luke at the Apollo Theater in New York last year was a highlight of his career.

“That was a shining moment, stepping out onto that stage in front of 2,000 people,” Lewis said. “Luke asked me, ‘Why are you nervous? You never get nervous.’ And I said, ‘Because this is the Apollo Theater!’ ”

Rishi said that Luke is one of a larger-than-usual number of male students, a trend that the studio encourages.

“We have many more than you typically see, and all ages and disciplines,” she said. The competitive team has 22 male dancers, and many others are recreational dancers. The studio also has three male ballet teachers, Rishi added.

“Shows like ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ help with encouraging boys to dance, too,” she said.

Beyond learning dance steps and technique, Rishi said the studio aims to help young dancers build a sense of teamwork, leadership and focus.

“Dance is healthy; it’s active. They’re not watching TV or sitting around,” Rishi said. “It helps them to do well in school and encourages organization and a strong work ethic.”

Rishi recalled when a team of seven teenage dancers won first place at a national talent competition in the District in July. After the girls won, they raced for Rishi’s phone and asked to call choreographer Marinda Davis to thank and congratulate her.

“They said, ‘We want to call Miss Marinda because we’re so happy for her,’ ” Rishi said. She 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.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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