When it comes to competitions and conventions, there are many opportunities for young dancers across the United States. The benefits of attending such an event are numerous: the chance to learn from your peers, work with word-class teachers and choreographers, hone your skills and celebrate your achievements. Artistic Dance Exchange (ADE) offers all this with a twist – giving winning dancers the opportunity to travel overseas and perform in an international festival. Dance Informa spoke to convention directors Alex Chan and Juan Borona about their unique event and what makes ADE so special.
ADE evolved from what Alex and Juan believed was missing from the dance world. “We started this business because we felt there was something lacking in the dance industry as whole,” explains Alex. “We wanted the kids to get experiences and opportunities that no other company would be able to provide. So with Juan’s connections from his dance career in Europe and previous relationships with a lot of artistic festivals, we were able to bring a different, international element to our dancers here in the US. We’re very proud of our exchange program,” he continues, “and we’ve gone from having two partnerships overseas to three in Spain, one in Italy, one emerging in Mexico, one in Argentina, one in London, and there are more collaborations going on every year.”
The premise of the exchange program is simple. Dancers who achieve highly throughout the regional and national ADE events are invited to travel to and perform at an international festival.
“At nationals it basically becomes an audition process at the end, at our showdown gala,” Alex and Juan describe. “The highest-scoring routines are invited to the gala and from there based on what these organisations need, we can send one group, one solo, a couple of solos, it really varies per year. There are never really a set number of spots. Throughout the year we also have runner ups who might get called if the festival suddenly has a spot open, and we are more than happy to get them that experience,” they add. “We want the kids to travel, to see how dance is represented worldwide, what makes us unique as dancers in each region, and also what makes us different in our approach to different styles. Through our foundation we provide assistance and get their hotel rooms covered, their meals, and there’s usually workshop classes involved too. We want them to truly see what dance is like elsewhere.”
This passion for creating an incredible experience for the dancers at their events carries across anyone who sets foot through the door of an ADE convention. “When we look into strategies of how we build our organisation, we don’t just look at the dancer’s experience, we look for the studio owner’s experience, the family’s experience and our faculty’s experience,” they say. “It’s really important for us that everyone that comes in to our event enjoys it. We used to run a dance school as well and we see the level of commitment parents make for their kids, and how costly it is, so we don’t want to pack the houses with kids in a room dancing like sardines. We want to give them something they can walk away from and say this was worth it, they got a lot out of it, and feel like they were paid attention to because they matter.”
For Juan, his personal experiences have shaped the way he approaches the business. “I remember how extremely stressful it was to be a dancer,” he notes. “Not only because of the amount of work and hours that you have to dedicate, but because of the pressure from choreographers, teachers and at auditions. Dance is something I have loved all my life, but it was stressful at times. I don’t want that to be the case when people come to my event. Of course they’re going to learn from the best of the best, they are going to get the best exposure, but I want them to enjoy, I want them to really live dance, and do what they love the most in an amazing atmosphere. That for me is super important.”
ADE also offers an Emerging Choreographer Award, which is another way Juan and Alex are able to support the industry. “We implemented our Emerging Choreographer Award to give teachers and instructors a platform to grow,” they explain. “The stars might not have aligned for them before, but so many of them are extremely talented. They can enter any routine at our competition, they get voted and recognised, and at nationals a winner is chosen for the year. The winner gets to choreograph with our Noble Prodigies, who are at a semi-professional level. For these choreographers it’s a dream, because they are able to execute a piece to their artistic passion. It’s a platform for them to get started and we have a couple of them that are now guest faculty for us doing various events. We want to give them an opportunity to grow that they wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise.”
There is a level of care and attention to detail at ADE events that speaks to Juan and Alex’s shared passion. From the Emerging Choreographer Award to the Prodigy program, everything is meticulously designed to encourage growth and inspiration. Choosing the faculty is no different. “I try to find a balance of well-known names in the industry, and the commercial world, and also who is a true teacher, a good communicator, the ones approaching the kids correctly,” says Juan. “It’s a fine balance between these elements.”
Alex agrees. “No matter how big a name is, because they could be amazing in their field, when they come to a convention they’re there to connect with the kids and impart their wisdom. That requires a different skillset; they need to be a teacher as well; so we look for people who won’t just come to class and teach a routine but really connect with children of all ages and give them the skills necessary to achieve their own level of success.”
Pushing the students to succeed is important to both directors, which is why their Noble Prodigy qualification is more than just a title. “In every class the instructors will write down numbers, those numbers are collected and go to our registration coordinator and that determines who gets a Prodigy All-Star and who gets a scholarship,” they describe. “At the end of the year Prodigy All-Stars get a free class convention for the year, and at nationals they compete and go through an extensive interview process and a week of rehearsals to become a Noble Prodigy. And really it’s not just what they do at nationals but it’s everything they do throughout the season, because they are representing their studio and ADE to the highest level,” they say. “They assist the faculty, they get hands on networking with the amazing choreographers that we have, they get pulled in for special projects like promo videos, performances, award shows, and everything. It’s the highest honor.”
From start to finish, an ADE event is always about more than just competition. The teamwork and partnership between Juan and Alex is the key to their success. They are on the same page when it comes to planning their events, and it shows. “We run our convention tour like a boutique company,” Juan says. “Everything is important, every single detail that is happening in the venue is considered, and customer service is number one for us.”
“The feedback we get from our ADE studio family members is that this is one of the least stressful conventions,” agrees Alex. “There’s no showboating, it’s a really supportive atmosphere, laid-back, and what it boils down to is that Juan and I really care about the experience of everyone that sets foot into one of our events. We pay attention to what a parent or studio owner feels like. At every event we have a studio owner chat, we go over what is it that they’re looking for, what would they like to see next year, and that feedback is really grass-roots and the key to making studios know they’re being heard. They get it from their families and through their dancers and we want to hear that from them.”
Positive feedback is not unusual for the pair, who are available and accessible to anyone who needs them during every event. “Every year I go through the same thing where I’m walking the floor and doing my rounds during class,” says Alex. “I look around and see so many happy faces and people smiling and enjoying themselves. In New Jersey last year a little boy came up to me, and he just said, ‘thank you for doing this’. He couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 and that kind of thing just gives you strength. And one of our Noble Prodigies couldn’t make nationals due to a conflict last year and we dialled her in so she could say thank you to her fellow Nobles via video link and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house for that. Those moments make us feel like we’re doing something different.”
As for the future, Juan and Alex both hope ADE will continue to grow, offering more tour dates in the US and more international partnerships. They also want to give more dancers the chance to go overseas. “Our next big step is a corporate sponsor for flights for our exchange programs,” they say. “People win a lot of opportunities at our events but sometimes due to financial reasons they are unable to fly out and that really breaks my heart. Dance should be accessible for all and we want to tackle how we can make it more affordable for everyone. We want the best for everyone,” they continue, “and we have so many people depending on us that it makes us work harder. We want our faculty to have a reliable position, we want the studio owners to have these opportunities to flourish, we want our dancers to have the most amazing experience, and that’s really what it boils down to.”
For more information on Artistic Dance Exchange, click here.
By Emily Newton-Smith of Dance Informa.