Local dancers win big at national competition

By SCOTT MIMS / Staff Writer

For most people, the dream of showing off one’s talents on a national stage remains a dream. But the dancers at Dream Makers Dance are living out theirs.

The competitive dance studio—which operates out of Columbiana, Shelby and Wilsonville—received top awards at Inspire, a national competition held in Savannah, Ga., including Most Inspiring Studio and People’s Choice Award. The latter is chosen by a vote of people attending or watching online.

Also presented were awards for Most Inspiring Teacher to Jenny Lespi and Most Inspirational Dancers to Katelyn Bevard and Gracie Driskell.

The competition was held the last week of June.

“The awards are significant to the dancers because they represent a thousand hours of practice for maybe a three-minute routine on a stage in front of five trained professional judges,” said Lespi. “However, our dancers are trained to be happy for whoever wins, and to keep moving if they don’t receive an award they want.”

For five straight years, Dream Makers has won the award for Dance Away Diabetes, a platform used by a contestant in the Miss America Pageant. Each year, Lespi explained, a Dance Away Diabetes Day is held at the Riverchase Galleria, where local teams are invited to perform. Through the event, Dream Makers has raised more than $5,000 toward the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Awards won at statewide competitions have included Judges Choice, Most Intriguing Dance and Most Entertaining. Currently, Ava Barco represents Dream Makers as The Face of Inspire in Montgomery, an award from a dance photogenic competition.

In May 2019, Barco, alongside Hannah Patterson, Gracie Hockman, Kenzie Gillam, Amber Hallmark, Gracie Driskell and Katelyn Bevard were presented with $500 convention scholarships from the Fire Dance Industry to attend training in Alabama, New York or Las Vegas. Driskell received an additional $500 convention award for being selected as an All-Star Dancer at competition, while Barco received a convention scholarship award for being named Miss Montgomery, Photogenic Dancer.

To Lespi, the awards are the culmination of all the time, effort, love and hard work put into each competition.

“Being a competitive dancer is hard work,” she said. “We practice about six hours a week per team to make sure that we are trained properly and know our pieces. We compete regionally and then attend nationals if our scores are at a certain level. But our staff also encourages everyone to ‘bloom where you are planted’ and not compare yourself to others. God has blessed us with abilities, and we take them and polish them until they shine.”

At the heart of each performance is a personal connection. Before a dance even begins to be choreographed, dancers must first be able to explain their story and talk about why they chose a piece of music; hence the studio’s motto, “Pray Before Plie.”

“Many of these dancers including myself have overcome obstacles with the joy that dance brings. Some of these students have lost their mothers to death. Sometimes a parent may be in jail. We have faced death so much—my son, a dancer, one of our teachers of 17 years. It is so hard to talk about these issues, but we can dance them and honor their memories. The stories we have told have had the judge’s attention on more than one occasion,” Lespi said.

Several of the studio’s scholarships bear the names of those they have lost: The Jeremy Lespi Academic Award is given in honor of Lespi’s late son, the Michelle Farish Scholarship honors the memory of a teacher, and the Mary Beth Heibert Scholarship honors a dancer who passed away.

Dances have also been performed about bullying, school shootings and other relevant issues.

“One factor that I believe makes our dancers outstanding is the fact that we lay our hearts on the dance floor,” Lespi said. “I may not can tell someone how I feel, but I can put it in a dance. The dancers are the same way. These girls just pour their hearts out on the dance floor. We speak without words through dance.”

The dancers love performing for their hometown audience on Liberty Day, at the fair and at the Christmas Parade pre-show. Another favorite is performing at Country Tonite in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., which is by invitation only. Last summer was their 20th performance at Pigeon Forge, and nearly 100 people from Columbiana were in attendance.

“We’re very proud of Jenny and her program and excited that her kids did so well at nationals,” said Cindy Warner, supervisor over community education with the Shelby County BOE. “It goes to show that she has run a quality program in her community for many years.”

Lespi expressed gratitude for the studio’s inclusion in the Shelby County Community Education Program. They utilize gymnasiums at Elvin Hill Gym in Columbiana as well as at the other locations.

For anyone interested, registration for Dream Makers is ongoing until Sept. 30. There is a link on the studio’s Facebook page.