Dancing with desire
The Studio dance school keeps kids moving
by Ryan McDonald
Miss Kimmy is talking about the eyes again. Two dozen adolescent girls are bounding, popping and twisting their hearts out, and Kimmy Matich tells them their eyes are “too empty.” It’s nearing 9 p.m. on a school night at The Studio, a Palos Verdes youth dance company in a tucked away, unassuming commercial strip of Rolling Hills Estates. Matich gestures at the mirrors that line the studio walls, and suggests the dancers use them to evaluate not just their bodies, but their gaze.
“If you make eye contact with yourself in a mirror, you can see your whole body. And, making eye contact in a mirror translates into making eye contact with the audience. When you are looking at them, it feels like you’re actually making a personal connection,” she said in an interview.
Matich and fellow dancer Kyle Vandemark opened The Studio in 2006. Since then, the company has racked up national awards, and its dancers have leaped to high levels in university and professional programs. Parents and former students say the program brings out the best of youth: challenging them without burning them out, and teaching them lessons that apply leaping through the air, while keeping one’s feet on the ground.
Dance is consuming in a way that football and drama are not. It fits somewhere between the sport and art, and the exhausted look on the faces of students as they leave class at The Studio suggests it drains the personal reservoirs of both at the same time. It is outside of school, and even the drive to the studio means it requires an additional burst of initiative to keep at it. And, even when performed in the middle of a choreographed group, it generates anxiety about the tiniest individual movement. New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine observed, “Someone once said that dancers work just as hard as policemen, always alert, always tense. But I don’t agree with that, because policemen don’t have to look beautiful at the same time.”
The rigors of dance have produced a caricature of instructors that is harsh, rigid, and bellowing in a thick European accent. But getting the sustained attention and respect of kids as young as three — or as independent and hormonally streaky as those at 18 — requires a more nuanced approach. As she talks about the eyes, Matich is firm but friendly, less Captain Ahab than Atticus Finch. Watching a class at The Studio reveals not only that its instructors know what they are talking about, but that they can get their pupils to listen and embody the lessons.
Palos Verdes resident Katie Slingsby has a 12-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son in The Studio. Her son is entering his 10th year, and her daughter is in her seventh. Having watched years of kids come and go, Slingsby said the difference that The Studio’s classes can have on its students is evident, even in children who aren’t their own.
“There was a girl a few years back. She was hunched over and had no confidence, terribly shy. Within two or three years, I remember my husband looked over at me, and said, Is that the same girl? Not only her physical strength, but the confidence in her own body,” she said. “To freely move and express yourself, that comes from dance.”
After her advice about the eyes, the kids begin again, and Matich smiles to herself at what’s unfolding. The kids have their back turned to her, but thanks to the studio mirror, they can see her thoughts reflected back at them. And, ever so slightly, they start to smile themselves.
From ‘sleepy’ to success
Matich and Vandemark opened The Space in a space that already held another company, Center Stage Dance Academy. That school had been started in a Southern California garage and expanded as it gradually took in more students. Matich worked there as an instructor until she was fired. Center Stage owner Holly Jones had gotten wind of Match’s desire to open her own studio. Fearing that Matich would leave and take students with her, Jones let her go.
Laughing as she described the incident, Matich described Jones as “the sweetest lady,” a characterization that probably owes something to what happened next: six months later, the owner called and asked Matich if she wanted to take over Center Stage. And not only that, she helped her find the money to do it.
“I was just a poor dancer. I was able to finance the studio through her. And unless I could find investors, there would have been no other way for me to do that,” she said.
Matich brought in Vandemark, and they set about transforming the studio. At the time, the dance scene in Palos Verdes was “pretty sleepy,” and they hoped to take things to the next level.
“The studio was super recreational. Our goal was to make it more competitive, to bring more energy,” Matich said. “We were young, we had tons of energy. We wanted to just bring good training and a more competitive environment.”
The competitiveness that Matich speaks of comes with an asterisk. Although The Studio regularly places near the top in national contests, this recognition is not at the top of the owners’ minds. Matich has an easier time recalling feelings or inspirations associated with routines than the particular awards won. In its emphasis on personal growth, The Studio strikes a balance much like what dancers aim for on stage: pursuit of technical perfection, but without swallowing the emotion and artistry behind movement.
Chris Lucas joined The Studio at the end of middle school, relatively late for a dancer. But by junior year of high school, he and a girl he had danced with for several years were honored as best duet for a scene from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In his senior year, he would be named best male dancer at nationals.
“The awards were never Kimmy and Kyle’s goals. For me personally, I’m a competitive person. But that tangible manifestation of success with the award, they never led with that. Their end goal is to make us well prepared for the industry, to make us into well-rounded dancers,” Lucas said.
Matich grew up in Michigan, with parents far from the stereotype of pushy dance overseers. She came to it on her own, and progressed rapidly. The time commitment dance required meant she missed out on other youth sports experiences, but she has come to see how dance can create connections as deep as soccer or basketball.
“Dance takes up so much time, but I never regretted a second of it. If you do dance competitively, it is the ultimate team sport. You learn so many things, and you are connected. You learn team camaraderie and trust,” she said. “Even though you’re constantly working on yourself, by being in a piece with choreography and other dancers, you get to be a part of something greater than yourself. When you get to do that at such a young age, it’s kind of magical. It opens your mind to so much more.”
Fitting it all in
Leading a dance company on the Peninsula, where most of the students come from, creates a built-in challenge. Many parents have high academic expectations, and kids already have packed schedules into which it can be difficult to add an hours-long dance class.
Most students join The Studio between ages 7 and 9. And while some do leave as college gets closer and the pressure of applying for college intensifies, many sticks it out by becoming “professional time managers,” as Matich called them.
Lucas was one of those heavily scheduled students. Along with his successes in competitive dance, he had a course load at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School loaded with Advanced Placement classes, as well as speech and debate, and the National Honor Society. Lucas went on to Stanford University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in computer science and is now getting a master’s in the same. Lucas addressed the “rigor of technical training” available at The Studio as both satisfying and expanding his desire to push himself.
“One of the things I pride myself on is seeking out challenging experiences, whether that be in academics or dance. At The Studio, I knew I was going to come and train for up to four hours a day, knowing that I was being trained at the top level, refining myself every day,” he said.
The discipline that The Studio’s program instills has helped their dancers get into college, and to keep dancing once they get there. (Matich said students often call her from their first year on campus, amazed at how much free time they feel like they suddenly have.) One Studio alum, for example, is now the captain of the UCLA dance team, while others are in the highly selective USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
But most who sign up their kids for classes at The Studio are realistic enough to recognize that the odds are against their child becoming a professional dancer. The Studio’s real gift, they said, is in teaching youngsters about themselves.
“It’s more than just dance. The kids really want to do well, and it kind of teaches them about taking pride and perfecting something,” said Laralee Ciernia, a Palos Verdes parent with three daughters, two of whom are currently enrolled at The Studio, and another who stayed until she graduated from high school. “You just see the growth in the kids. At first, it’s just fun: going to dance class, wearing an outfit. But it becomes something they want to perfect and excel at. They learn life lessons, I guess. They’re realizing, ‘This is fun and I love it, but it’s not just a game. We want to learn and we want to do well, so we’ve got to work.’”
Back on the dance floor, Matich is talking to the kids about shifting their weight more quickly so they have more time to hold a certain pose. As much as dance demands a yes-or-no execution of particular movements — leaps, lifts, going en pointe — Matich wants the students to be able to reveal themselves to the audience in stillness, as if posing for a picture. It’s another counterintuitive point for the students to absorb. One thing Matich wants young dancers to take away, she said, is “their imperfections are powerful.”
“They learn how to fail. They learn that failure is not necessarily a bad thing. That’s where they really get to know themselves. They see their strengths and but also their weaknesses, and how what’s different about them can propel them forward.”
The Studio Palos Verdes is at 720 Deep Valley Drive in Rolling Hills Estates. For class information, go to The-Studio-Dance.com/.