Northwest Como Dance Program Soars to Unexpected Heights
By Eric Erickson
Four high school students representing Northwest Como Rec Center earned the title of grand champion in the Majestic Dance Competition at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Ruby Kosiak, Audrey Power-Theisen, Sophia Lancaster and Nicole Vessel performed in the Senior Small Group category and claimed the top prize by scoring 297 out of 300 possible points.
Teams from city rec centers aren’t supposed to do that. But this team, and the entire Northwest Como Dance Center, are beating the odds.
Rachel Handren was working in the after-school daycare program at Northwest Como Rec Center in 2014 when community recreation director Darcy Rivers asked if she would be interested in starting up a dance program. Neighborhood parents had expressed an interest, Rivers was receptive, and Handren said yes.
With an extensive background in dance, Handren passionately pursued the dance project with the objective of making ballet, jazz and hip-hop dancing accessible and fun for youth. There was a class for ages 3 to 5, and another for ages 6 to 12.
Dance studios have mirrors, handrails for ballet, wood floors and other expected amenities. The rec center has a gym. A few do-it-yourselfers contributed some PVC pipe for handrails, 20 students enrolled, and the Northwest Como Dance Center was born.
Fast forward to 2017: Participation quadrupled and talent was on the rise, too.
“I recognized that the students taking my classes were needing more and more challenges and weren’t being pushed enough by simple recreation classes,” Handren said. “So I met with Darcy and discussed creating a competitive program.”
The facilities didn’t change, but the options did. In 2018, 15 students chose to take the bold step of preparing for competition and all it entails: costumes, judges, events, and even intimidation from experienced, well-established studios and dancers.
Como Rec Center’s 15 competitive dancers held their own in solo and ensemble numbers. They gained confidence, enjoyed the experience, and realized they wanted to work in order to reach higher levels of skill and expertise they witnessed at events.
As the 2019 sessions began, Handren was thrilled with the massive growth of the dance center: More than 100 dancers enrolled, including 35 who chose to participate in the competitive program. Those 35 dancers represented Northwest Como across the metro area in three large events this spring. Their efforts culminated with the Majestic Dance Competition from April 11-14, the largest event in the state attracting teams from across Minnesota and neighboring states.
“We save the biggest and toughest for last,” Handren said.
The small ensemble of Kosiak, Power-Theisen, Lancaster, and Vessel practiced three nights a week through the winter. With Handren’s creativity and encouragement, they enjoyed developing their movements, choreography, and expression for “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof.
The first competition in February produced an “OK” score according to Handren. “It wasn’t what we hoped, but we went back to practice, worked with critiques and committed to become better.”
The second competition produced a better score, but the group felt there was still a lot of room for improvement. The girls were motivated for the Majestic.
After completing their routine on the Majestic stage, the girls had an adrenaline rush. “We knew we had performed at our highest level,” Kosiak said.
What happened next caught Rachel Handren completely off guard.
“Typically, after a routine, the judges enter their scores and teams wait for awards,” Handren said. “After ‘Matchmaker,’ one of the judges immediately came backstage and complimented us for the choreography and passion from the girls and the story they told.”
“These judges are professionals in the dance and entertainment industry,” he added. “Judges don’t leave their seats to follow up with performers and offer compliments. The input was jaw-dropping to receive.”
When the awards were announced, tears of joy kicked in as the girls realized all they had accomplished. They were called to the stage for a “Platinum Elite” score of 297, called back up to claim first place in their category, and called up once more as Grand Champion for earning the top score of all routines and categories on their stage.
“Hearing all that was just levels and levels of being overwhelmed,” Power-Theisen said. “We were thinking, is this really happening?”
The meteoric rise of the Northwest Como dancers means they will compete in a national event next month. Travel won’t be an obstacle — it’s being held at the Mall of America in Bloomington.
But an additional benefit of their success will take them far away from St. Paul. Their victory in the Majestic automatically qualified the group for a prestigious competition called “The One” in Orlando, Florida during 2020.
Until then, you can find these champions and over 100 other young dancers, humbly doing what they love in a rec center gym in the northwest corner of Como Park.