Shine OnJanuary 25, 2019
Story by Allen Laman
Photographs by Sarah Ann Jump
If you dance with Alexander James Edwards, he will remember your name. The professional dancer-singer-actor-choreographer lives outside Orlando, Florida, and tours the country while working with young dance students. Pick a small town in the middle of nowhere and he’s probably been there. He’ll also remember who he met on the trip.
Last weekend, Edwards returned to the ballrooms of the French Lick Springs Hotel, a grandiose structure surrounded in large part by farm fields and rolling hills, to lend his expertise to the fourth annual Shine Dance Convention and Competition.
He snapped photos with teens, who look forward to seeing him every year, after teaching a lyrical and contemporary dance class on Saturday morning.
“I still am connected with a lot of my students,” Edwards said while icing his knee during an interview in his downtime at the hotel. “They message me all the time, they call me all the time. This and that. I got an audition, or can I come take class, or can I assist you when you do this? I think it’s great to have that, because I always loved that mentorship when I was growing up.”
The three-day convention is the only one of its kind in the region, and the bonds formed between the pupils and their teachers are the event’s biggest draws. Edwards and three of the event’s other instructors — all world-class dancers and dance teachers in their own right — relish those connections.
They seek to inspire attendees and show them a piece of what the next level has to offer. For some students, those bonds could extend to professional dancing.
“There’s a lot of potential,” Tyrell Washington, an experienced Los Angeles-based dancer-choreographer and Shine instructor, said of the talent at the event.
Carolyn and Joe Randolph of Jasper launched the nearby convention in 2016. The nearest workshops take place in major cities like St. Louis; Nashville, Tennessee; and Indianapolis, and those events are often crowded, expensive affairs.
Carolyn also owns Dance Central Academy of Performing Arts in Jasper. She recalled a past trip dancers at the studio made to a convention in which some attendees couldn’t fit in the space provided and had to miss out on a class they paid to attend.
“Some of these conventions are not limiting the number of students that they allow, so they’re almost overfilling, and they’re based more on the profit instead of what the kids are getting out of it, I feel,” she said. “And so I just said, ‘That’s it. Let’s just do a workshop.’”
This year, Shine pulled in 105 dancers from eight Southern Indiana dance studios. After a dance party on Friday night, instructors taught hourlong classes highlighting different styles of modern dance in various rooms inside the hotel on Saturday and Sunday. Participants could also enter a competition to have their skills rated by the instructors they worked with throughout the weekend.
“We have what’s popular in music videos and on TV and touring with musical artists, and then we also have what’s current on Broadway,” Carolyn explained. “And then to have Alex come and (bring) what’s popular within the dance competition world and what’s going on, we’re really blessed.”
Carolyn attended Point Park University in Pittsburgh, a prestigious theater school, and said the connections she made during her time there helped her assemble the all-star cast of Shine dance teachers. That group has morphed over the years.
In addition to Edwards and Washington, Latrina Bolger-Washington and Thommie Retter also journeyed across the country to lead classes at the convention this time around. They danced on stages in front of attendees, twirling their bodies and snapping their limbs as the kids mirrored them from the dance floors.
The list of achievements each member of the instructor super team has accomplished reads like a tapestry of success. Including all their feats would consume this newspaper.
Odds are, you’ve either seen them and not realized it or witnessed the final product of their efforts.
Edwards, for example, has danced in halftime shows with Destiny’s Child and Toby Keith. The director of numerous dance competitions, he also broke into the top 120 participants on Fox’s seventh season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” and has worked on Lifetime’s “Dance Moms.”
Washington’s television and film credits include eye-grabbers like “Stomp the Yard,” “Step Up 3D,” “Hannah Montana” and even Beyonce’s powerful halftime performance in Super Bowl XLVII. He has appeared in music videos with Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and on and on. Washington also choreographed and went on tour with big-time pop stars, and can be seen in television commercials.
Bolger-Washington has also been in TV adverts for popular brands. She has choreographed for Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake, Keyshia Cole and Jay Z, and performed with many of the same, iconic stars as Washington. She has been in music videos featuring Jason Derulo, Gwen Stefani, Ariana Grande, Ciara and many more. Bolger-Washington and Washington are married, and they both work as associate performance producers on NBC’s “The Voice.”
Retter, who lives in New York City, starred as Mr. Braithwaite in “Billy Elliot the Musical” on Broadway. The director of his own successful entertainment studio in The Big Apple, Retter coaches students who have appeared in virtually every Broadway show that has featured children since 2012. He, too, is known for his choreography work — handling Disney-related programming like the “Corey in the House” television show and the iteration of “High School Musical” that performed on Theatre Row.
Maria Rivers, Carolyn’s longtime mentor, taught classes for the youngest students. She guided Carolyn into the entertainment world, and has experience as a director and choreographer.
Some of the dancers who attended Shine follow the instructors on social media sites, and many of them recognize the heights their weekend teachers have reached.
“(It’s) like I have someone to look up to,” said Abby Jackson, a 14-year-old dancer who attended the convention with Legacy Dance Company of Evansville.
Legacy’s owner, Angela Paul, likes the small class sizes at Shine. Hundreds of dance students are often crammed in sessions at conventions in bigger cities — sometimes to the point that even if they make it in the room, they’re forced to watch instructors on screens because they’re so far removed from the front stage. At Shine, the average class size was a fraction of that.
The proximity makes it a must-attend for Heather Cross and her Tell City studio, Dance Haven.
“One thing that I’ve always seen from any of my kids when they go, they come back with a different confidence,” she said. “They learn differently than just learning from me or my teachers that they’re used to. They have to learn faster ... just having to go into a different environment and having to work in a group of people they don’t know.”
Parents sitting in chairs dot the perimeter of the rooms, recording videos and chatting among themselves as their children dance.
“I love the fact that I get to sit back and watch her learn and grow, and excel in everything she does,” Jennifer Simonson of Evansville said of her 14-year-old daughter, Gretchen. “I just love watching her.”
Carolyn aims to keep growing the event into the future while ensuring the experience remains personal. Maybe that means hosting multiple events throughout the year under the Shine umbrella or branching out to regional studios in another way.
During a lunch break on Saturday, the instructors took a breather and spoke humbly of the impact they leave on the dancers’ lives when the weekend ends.
“One of my favorite things about being a teacher is if you ask somebody who won the Oscar for the best picture last year, or the actress or the actor, nobody knows,” Retter said. “But if you ask them who their third-grade teacher was, everybody knows.”
He continued: “And if you ask them what was your childhood dance teacher’s name, they can tell you every one of their childhood dance teachers. So, as teachers, everything that comes out of your mouth is going to be lasting.”
Those words are a gift he, Edwards, Bolger and Washington all cherish. They can point young dancers to avenues for success, and might end up working with them on the professional level someday. But whether the attendees pursue a career in dance doesn’t matter to the instructors.They just want to see the kids shine in life.
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