CHS Special Dance Company ‘Overcomes the Struggle’ to Shine in Annual Performance


“Though the school year was riveted with challenges for the program, all landed solidly on point and delivered a spectacular dance concert! The success of it all speaks volumes about the importance of teamwork; students, teachers, administrators, parents and community!” — SOMSD Supervisor of Fine Arts James Manno

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This article was originally published on July 4, 2024:

On May 31 and June 1, the Special Dance Company of Columbia High School put on its annual show, notable not only for its “spectacular” quality but also the many trials that company members endured to bring the performance to life.

This year, the 42 members of the audition-based dance company found themselves advocating for and adjusting to new leadership, testifying in support of arts education funding, and having to move to a new space for technical rehearsals and performances after the CHS stage was declared off limits due to rigging issues.

Working with acting artistic director Kayla Fleming starting in March, the students — the dance company includes sophomores, juniors and seniors — had limited rehearsals in the show space at South Orange Middle School (SOMS), spotlighting the work and dedication of the stage crew as well as the dancers and choreographers.

A highlight of the show was the closing of the first act – “Fun Piece” – choreographed by seniors and performed by the entire company. The high energy, 7.5 minute piece had the audiences clapping and cheering.

“Special Dance this year was definitely different than we’ve experienced in past years,” said Simone McCrear, one of three co-captains. “There were a lot of obstacles and challenges we had to overcome for the sake of our company and our show, the broken stage being one of them. We are all incredibly grateful that [South Orange Middle School] Principal [Lynn] Irby was kind enough to let us use the SOMS Stage.”

McCrear added, “Losing our artistic director halfway through the year was definitely a setback and forced the three of us to step into the role of being both captains and teachers, which was difficult to navigate, but I am proud of us for the way that we handled it.”

Co-captain Lily Penn-Virot, who will be attending Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers this fall, called Special Dance “one of the best experiences of my high school life,” despite the fact that it was “incredibly taxing” and the co-captains were in a “really challenging position with everything that went down this year.”

“Without Special Dance, I don’t think I would have as many friends or be as confident as I am now,” said Penn-Virot. “It has helped me grow into the person and dancer I want to be when I am older.”

McCrear, who will be attending the Boston Conservatory at Berklee this fall, said that Special Dance had made her “a stronger person — holistically speaking — and I feel that I am more comfortable expressing myself as an artist and using my voice when I have something to say.”

“Special Dance has been an incredible community within CHS for myself and many other members of the company throughout the years,” said co-captain Leah Glass, who will be attending University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall to study social work. “Being able to create and perform art with such an incredible group of people has allowed for experiences that I could not find anywhere else. Even through all of the misfortunes and bumps in the road that Special Dance has been through this year, our love for each other and this program kept us going and I am so proud of the show that we were able to put on.”

Special Dance “OG Senior” Lydia Ryan had high praise for the stage crew.

“The stage crew brought over so many lights from CHS that I really felt like a similar experience to past years and almost even more special because we overcame that challenge.”

Rising senior Ryan Gaykowski has been on the stage crew for the Special Dance show since 2022 and this year served as a co-lighting designer and lighting operator.

“Taking the Special Dance show on the road to South Orange Middle School posed some unique challenges to the Stage Crew, including a lengthy process of moving all of our lighting equipment from Columbia High School to the new venue using mostly our own cars,” said Gaykowski. “It took a crew of nearly 20 dedicated students, under the leadership of Technical Director Ms. Tara Abbondante, to move, install, design, program, and then take down all of our equipment, including an entire lighting rig and a special Marley rubber dance floor all in a little over one week.”

Gaykowski added, “Under normal circumstances, we would have a little over two weeks to work with the choreographers to help realize their vision for the various dance numbers; but due to the relocation we had only three days to work through the technical aspects of the show and still produce the same high quality expected from such a production. Our efficiency in this expedited show process was largely to the credit of Ms. Fleming, whose support of the Crew and our needs was unwavering. Her dedication to creating a well-rounded production helped to turn a chaotic relocation process into a wildly successful show.”

Lydia Ryan also had praise for Kayla Fleming: “Ms. Fleming brought such a light and joy to the company and this year I felt that there was a type of passion for the show that I hadn’t felt before. Because she was an alumni of the company, she was able to identify with any challenges we had and help us problem solve. She made sure that we worked hard and as she said, ‘Stood on our business.’ But she also made us laugh on the daily and I had more fun in the three months she was here than I had before.”

“When Ms. Fleming stepped into the role as our acting artistic director she was amazing staight-away and it was such a pleasure to work with her,” said McCrear. “I feel like she was someone we could talk to and someone that would listen to us whenever we had an opinion to share. She was always transparent with us and it is largely due to her efforts that we were able to have such an incredible show.”

In the end, it all came down to the audience reception. “It was incredible!” said Lydia Ryan. “People said it was the best Special Dance show they’ve seen and I think that is remarkable given all the changes we had to overcome. I think that this reception is a testament to how incredible Ms. Fleming is.”

South Orange-Mapelwood School District’s Supervisor of Fine Arts James Manno wrapped it all up.

“In the film The Greatest Showman, the song Rewrite the Stars has a line, ‘So why don’t we rewrite the stars?’ It’s a poignant and pivotal notion of hope, because despite fate seemingly telling the young couple they don’t have a chance, they overcome the struggle and end up together,” Manno wrote in an email to Village Green. “It adds to the uplifting nature of that story.  That’s how I feel about this year’s Special Dance Company’s story. Though the school year was riveted with challenges for the program, all landed solidly on point and delivered a spectacular dance concert! The success of it all speaks volumes about the importance of teamwork; students, teachers, administrators, parents and community!”

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