Although it was the group’s 8th conference, it was the first one CA has attended, and according to dance teacher Melissa Zaremba, it was a terrific opportunity for the dancers—Ninth Graders Gabriela Gonzales and Caroline Kurtz, and Juniors Sawyer Risch and Sasha Yuffa—to learn and grow. “The conference allowed our students to gain perspective, venture out of their comfort zone, and make new connections,” she says. “They were able to try new styles, learn from new teachers, and see what else is happening in the world of dance in Colorado right now.”
One of the conference highlights was the debut of Colorado’s inaugural All-State Dance Ensemble, recognizing outstanding achievement in dance. “Colorado has an All-State Choir and an All-State Band,” says conference director Leslie Williams. “It was clear to us that Colorado should also have an All-State Dance Ensemble.”
CA Ninth Grader Gabriela Gonzales was one of just 12 dancers selected statewide for the Ensemble, after submitting her video audition to the CoDEO Board. The All-State dancers met for the first time at the conference and worked with Aurora-based choreographer Maggie Chapman to present an original piece at the closing performance.
Gabriela, a world-champion salsa dancer, showed her versatility by quickly learning contemporary ensemble work. Even among the state’s top dancers, Gabi’s talent, focus, dedication, and artistry stood out to Chapman, who awarded her a $250 scholarship to continue her dance education.
“I was really out of my comfort zone because I would say that I am a fast learner, but I had never done a routine that’s lyrical or contemporary, let alone learn and perform it in four hours,” Gabriela says. “But I learned so many different moves that I will be able to incorporate into my salsa dancing. I also learned so much from the talented girls around me who were in their element and who had experience.”
Junior Sasha Yuffa was also presented with a scholarship for her performance. Unlike most of the conference attendees, Sasha’s dance journey has not been through years of previous training. In fact, her primary formal training has been here at CA.
“Going into the dance conference, I was nervous about my performance capabilities,” Sasha says. “Compared to the other dancers there, I have significantly less experience. However, once I became more comfortable with my surroundings and how each class I attended would operate, I began to open up. I learned many new techniques, ways to prevent injury, choreography skills, and different types of dance.”
“I could not be more proud of Sasha for pushing through her discomfort,” says Zaremba “She was a leader among her peers—showing what a strong work ethic and positive attitude look like. She absolutely stood out in her group performance. She is a natural-born performer and hip hop dancer.”
In receiving those two scholarships, CA’s small contingency made an outsized impact at the conference. There were 101 students in attendance, and half of the scholarships went to CA dancers.
“What’s so special about this is that Gabi and Sasha were both given these awards not necessarily because they were the ‘best’ or ‘most technical’ dancers,” Zaremba says. “While they are both fantastic, there were many other dancers who were also fantastic. They received the awards because they stood out for showing up 100 percent, going outside their comfort zones, and giving it their all.”
Ms. Zaremba taught two sessions at the conference, an advanced tap class and a Broadway audition class—which walked students through a simulation of a true Broadway dance call. This is an experience that she knows well. Among her many accomplishments, Ms. Zaremba was a Radio City Rockette for eight years, performed as a principal dancer alongside the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, tapped across the U.S. on the first National Tour of 42nd Street, and was featured on Dancing With the Stars. Her choreography has been seen in musical theater productions throughout the country, from Off-Broadway to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and more.
Dance opportunities at CA
Now in her fourth year teaching dance at CA, Ms. Zaremba has been diligently building the program, encouraging curious students to give dance a try. Middle and Upper School students have embraced the classes, which are not only fun, but provide a great way to incorporate movement during the school day. Current offerings include Tap, Broadway, Company, and Vertical Dance—which is performed with ropes and harnesses on the CA climbing wall. She is looking at possible additions of Lyrical and Contemporary classes in 2022-2023. Fifth Graders also have a dance special arts class every rotation, where they are introduced to a variety of styles.
No experience is necessary to participate in CA dance. “We have a wide range of abilities—some very experienced and some newcomers,” Zaremba says. “Students will get out of the program what they put in. Some discover new passions and excel very quickly.”
Unlike other electives, students can choose to take Upper School Dance for either art or athletic credit. Because classes happen during the school day, students can benefit from additional freedom and flexibility in their after-school hours.
The in-school dance classes have been especially appealing to Gabriela. “I just love that I can do something that I’m so passionate about during school,” she says. “It’s a block of time where I don’t have to worry about academics; I can just let go.”
Senior Lee Kenney took tap to fulfill an athletic credit, but it ended up being much more than that. “I already have a vested interest in theater and music,” Lee says. “Taking a dance class was a lovely opportunity to expand both of those interests in a new direction. Mostly, though, Ms. Zaremba just makes class so enjoyable. It’s never about being the best dancer; it’s about having the best experience. I just had so much fun, and now I’m hoping to find a way to tap in college as well.”
The laughter, collaboration, and supportive atmosphere in the dance room also left an impression on Sasha. “I love the environment, because I not only created a strong bond with my teacher, Ms. Zaremba, but I also created strong bonds with many of my classmates.”
CA Director of Visual and Performing Arts Katy Hills credits Zaremba with providing a welcoming space for anyone willing to give dance a try. “Melissa supports and guides all of our dancers in finding their authentic voice as artists,” Hills says. “Every dancer comes to her with a different background and different set of skills, and she meets each of them where they are. Her passion for dance and the performing arts has carried our students through a tough time these past two years.”
Gabriela says she has benefitted from exposure to the variety of dance offered at CA. “It is very easy for me to stick to what I’m good at, which is Latin dance, where I’m training with other dancers who are Latin dancers. But at CA, it’s so fun to learn with dancers that all have different styles that they are good at. Ms. Z does a great job with pushing us all to learn new things, while also giving us the chance to show off our strengths.”
Choreography for CA musicals
In addition to teaching classes, Ms. Zaremba works closely with the theater faculty to choreograph the school musicals. Her collaborations have made an impact.
“Melissa is such a pro,” says Maclain Looper, one of CA’s three theater teachers. “She oozes professionalism and confidence, so the kids can’t help but absorb it. She is fantastic, fun, and supportive of those around her. I honestly don’t know what we did to deserve her!”
Mark your calendar to see some lively dancing in the Middle School Musical, High School Musical, which will take the Leach Center stage on February 11-12 at 7 p.m., as well as Mary Poppins, this year’s Upper School Musical, with performances April 29-May 1.