How San Diego’s APA prepares students to go pro
By Gina McGalliard
In the dance meccas of New York, L.A., and Chicago, many studios offer training that sets students on a track to a dance career. Then there’s the Academy of Performing Arts (APA). Though its home is San Diego—probably not what most people think of as a bustling dance town—the school has an impressive track record of sending its students into the worlds of concert and commercial dance, including Broadway.
The school offers many of the kinds of classes that you’d find almost anywhere: contemporary, classical ballet, jazz, African, modern, hip-hop, even Bollywood. Not so typical are APA’s multiple companies in residence and a faculty with an impressive track record of professional credits, even some with union credentials (Screen Actors Guild, Actors’ Equity Association, American Guild of Musical Artists, and American Guild of Variety Artists), who hail from various dance companies and performing-arts organizations.
Setting the school apart still further is the fact that it often hosts auditions for films (Bring It On with Kirsten Dunst), TV shows and commercials (Allstate’s nationally aired ad), national tours (CelticFusion, Selena Forever), Las Vegas shows (Jubilee! at Bally’s), cruise ships, theme parks, and other events, such as No Doubt’s NFL halftime show. Gwen Stefani came to the studio looking for dancers for her show for her Super Bowl performance and chose several APA scholarship students.
Feeling its way Today APA is a hub of activity, but in its early years co-owner Kevin Patterson wondered if it would ever take off. Realizing that San Diego had sparse offerings of adult dance classes, Patterson had decided to open a studio featuring professional-level classes in various genres.
He broached the idea with a college pal, Liam Harney, a two-time world champion Irish step dancer who was teaching Irish dance classes in a local church. Patterson’s performing career had included everything from musical theater to being a dance captain on cruise ships to playing Prince Charming at Disneyland. The two men had shared a love of musical theater in college, and Harney was game to team up on the new venture. The two founded APA in September 1993.
But except for the Irish classes, nobody was showing up at the facility they opened in San Diego’s Mission Valley. “I was twiddling my thumbs, and I said, ‘This isn’t going to work,’ ” says Patterson, who ended up going around town with flyers advertising the new studio because he couldn’t afford any other marketing. “And little by little, college kids [brought] in their friends, and then more college kids [came].” Enrollment soon snowballed, and APA eventually nearly quadrupled in square footage. Today APA’s enrollment numbers in the thousands.
Another catalyst for growth was CelticFusion, a show choreographed by Harney and Patterson that toured the United States, Australia, and South America. Harney describes it as “the American answer to Riverdance,” the mid-’90s show that made Irish step dancing famous. (He had briefly performed as the lead male dancer for London’s West End production of Riverdance.) The number of high-caliber artists in the show (including several APA dancers) created buzz in San Diego’s performing-arts community, Patterson says, attracting more students to APA.
Hand-picked faculty From the beginning Patterson and Harney were committed to finding the best instructors possible. “[Kevin] went after every teacher and personality that he brought into the studio,” says Harney. “He knows how to make connections.” The APA faculty includes contemporary/lyrical instructor Chrischell Robinson, who has appeared with the Radio City Rockettes and with Hugh Jackman at the Tony Awards, and ballet instructor Xavier Hicks, a former Alvin Ailey dancer.
APA is also home to four professional companies in residence. Butterworth Dance is one company that has used APA as a springboard. “Kevin is very generous to give other artists time and use of dancers, and I think that’s a rare thing,” says Traves Butterworth. “So I would recommend everyone in the world to come here.” APA’s students benefit from the relationship as well. Some company directors teach on the faculty, and Butterworth has choreographed a piece for the school’s scholarship students.
Paths to success Tiffany Daniels, who played Squeak for a year in the national tour of The Color Purple, says APA was invaluable to her success. She trained at APA as a teenager while attending a performing-arts high school, and after graduating from Cornell University she moved to L.A. to attack the commercial dance scene. After enjoying a yearlong scholarship at Edge Performing Arts Center and securing representation from bloc talent agency, she began doing commercials and regional musical theater. And she became a Laker Girl. Then she got a call to audition for The Color Purple, a gig that lasted three years.
“[APA] prepared me for different styles and different techniques,” says Daniels. Her previous training, she explains, didn’t offer enough variety. “We had the same teachers every week, same warm-up every week, same everything. APA broadened my entire spectrum of what dance is and what it can be, and it opened my eyes to the fact that doing this can be a career.”
While most performers spend years honing their craft before gracing the professional stage, Sarah Jenkins nailed a part in the national touring cast of Swing! right out of high school. Jenkins, a recent dance captain for the Legally Blonde national tour, was a competition kid before training at APA. “I didn’t actually learn how to perform as a dancer until I went to APA,” says Jenkins.
For Annette Ye, APA was the avenue to a career offstage, as a union stage manager for San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, where many productions start before heading to Broadway. After a dance career that included Disney Cruises and regional musical theater, she felt she belonged behind the scenes. APA gave her dance training and a path to her new role as a production assistant for CelticFusion.
“Kevin and Liam essentially taught me how to learn; they taught me how to achieve and move forward. And the training in dance can apply to anything else in life. It teaches you how to be a perfectionist, how to critique yourself and figure out how to improve,” says Ye. “So APA definitely changed my life.”
Ana de la Torre, who has danced in industrials and for local companies and judged competitions, is a former
APA student who made the leap to faculty and is now teaching jazz. “It’s where I’ve grown,” she says of APA. “It’s always home, and it’s always a comfort zone. It’s not only helped me artistically [but] professionally as a person” by helping her blossom socially along with developing her dance and teaching skills.
The current crop of students shows the same enthusiasm. “I thought I was pretty good, but then APA has just pushed my talent that much higher,” says John Fulgham, 19, who trains in ballet, contemporary, modern, and tap. He hopes to transfer to UC Irvine and pursue a professional dance and teaching career. “I’ve only been here three months, so I’ve seen a fast improvement. I love it here.”
“It’s just really cool being around people who are all working really hard,” says student Skylar Ivy, 20, who plans to move to New York to pursue a dance career. This coming winter she’ll be performing in the ensemble of the Texas/Florida tour of Radio City Christmas Spectacular. She says APA is like a family. “Here, everyone around you is working to be a dancer. So being around that all the time, it makes you want to come in and work, and it makes it not like work. It makes it enjoyable.”
Growing by leaps and bounds Today’s dancers must be versatile, so APA offers acting and voice in its extensive curriculum. “I want acting and singing to have as strong a presence as the dance,” says Patterson. “It’s called the Academy of Performing Arts for a reason. We want it to be everything, not just the Academy of Dance Arts. I would love it if we could point to any one [of the students], and if an acting audition came up, they could audition for it and be fine. If a vocal audition came up, they could go to it and be fine. It’s really [about] getting all these people ready for the performing arts, for all aspects.”
Undoubtedly, another contributor to the studio’s success is what Patterson describes as its “warm and welcoming environment.” Although APA has sent many students into professional ranks, those who dance for enjoyment are as welcome as those who see themselves on Broadway or in a music video. “It’s the studio’s culture,” says Patterson, whose dog, Princess, the unofficial studio pet, often wanders APA’s halls. Students on scholarship are informed of the importance of welcoming everyone who takes class at APA, Patterson says.
After being in Mission Valley for almost two decades, in early 2010 APA relocated to the nearby San Diego suburb of La Mesa, to a new four-studio facility that includes a vocal room. APA currently has approximately 50 teachers on staff, including substitutes, and in the last three years 4,300 students have come through its doors, more than 800 of them in the last several months. And the studio’s reputation is steadily growing: APA’s Facebook page has legions of fans from the United States, of course, but also from Italy, Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, and South Africa.
A dance presence Patterson hopes that APA will not only make a significant contribution to the performing arts but will put San Diego on the map as a presence in the dance world. “I’m starting to feel confident that with us being in the eighth-largest city in the country and having this really diverse schedule, having the number-one climate in the world, we could eventually be a much stronger force nationally than we are right now,” says Patterson.
As APA leaps into the future, L.A. and New York might not be the only places for aspiring triple threats to have a dance career.
Go to the magazine at: http://www.dancestudiolife.com/2010/11/broadway-on-the-pacific/
Academy of Performing Arts-San Diego
5120-C Baltimore Dr.
La Mesa, CA 91942
San Diego Dance Studio