On a recent afternoon at the Rise dance studio in Vineyard Haven, the voice of director Jil Matrisciano bounced off the studio walls.
“Find your rib cage, find your strength, find your length,” she urged. She stopped the rehearsal and moved to one of the dancers.
“Think Spock ears,” she said, encouraging the girls to elongate their necks. She lightly tugged on the tips of the girls’ ears. “You’re all too young to know what this is, but go home and watch Star Trek. That’s your homework.”
The dancers began going through the movements and by the third time, the girls were getting closer.
“Yes!” Ms. Matrisciano said. “That’s pretty.”
Ms. Matrisciano is part coach, part choreographer and part role model, qualities she tries to instill in her dancers. She sets a high bar for the young artists and can be tough, but March means crunch time at the dance studio. The 39 company members have been preparing for the American Dance Awards regional competition in Springfield to be held this weekend, March 28 to 30.
Now in its seventh year, Rise provides year-round classes for children, teens and adults.
“I remember growing up how important my studio was to me,” Ms. Matrisciano said. “And at studios I taught at off-Island, I saw how they become home to so many girls. It’s such a uniting place for them. Especially living here, I feel like young people need something.”
This is the company’s sixth competition and it is always a process getting the kids and parents in the mindset of what it takes to be an intensive dancer, Ms. Matrisciano said.
“That’s what I like to call them rather than competitive,” she said. “We go to competition because it offers them an opportunity to see what other dancers their age are doing. It lets them see how they’re progressing in comparison. But it also gives them something to look forward to and a goal.”
A total of 31 pieces of choreography are going to competition this year, making it the company’s biggest year yet, Ms. Matrisciano said. Each new piece of choreography will run for two competition seasons.
“They get to perform it the first season and then they really get to know it,” she said.
The company travels to several competitions a year, which vary in emphasis. The American Dance Awards will focus more on the musicality and expression of the dance. The next competition, coming up in April, is called Turn It Up, and will focus more on technique and the height of a kick.
Dancers range in age from 5 to 16. They will be competing in tap, jazz, contemporary, lyric, modern, character and an open category for either acrobatics or lyrical dance. The two five year olds competing will use shopping carts for a dance choreographed to Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It.
“I’m really looking forward to this year because with a stronger understanding of technique I think our dancers are more prepared than they have ever been,” Ms. Matrisciano said. “They’re beginning to understand how much their personality comes into play during their performance.”
Get in the mirror and lip synch to the song you’re dancing to, she tells her dancers, “with the same sass as Aretha Franklin.”
Although they are heading to a competition, dance encompasses so much more, Ms. Matrisciano said.
“I love the athletic virtue of it, but what’s more important to me is that they understand it’s an art form, an expression, but it’s also a sport,” she said. “And it’s theatre, it’s being on point in every possible way you can.”
The first group of Rise dancers competed when they were six years old as astronauts to the Carpenters song On Top of the World.
“To look at their progression from where they were and where they are now, my heart flutters when I think about what they’re going to be like at 15 or 16 years old because they’re that good at 10 or 11,” she said.
Heart fluttering happens a lot for Ms. Matrisciano as she watches her girls turn into young women.
“As much as I believe in dance, another part of why I do what I do is because I’m a huge proponent for the success and positive influence that young women need,” she said. “I want young women to have a jumping point. Other than dance being great physical exercise and an emotional outlet, it’s a way for them to gather together as a group and support one another.”
Ms. Matrisciano hopes what they learn in the studio will serve them long after they leave her.
“Even if they’re not going to be dancers in their life, they’re all going to be teachers in some way, shape or form, whether they’re mothers or teaching math or youth leaders or they’re dance teachers, they’re going to influence other people,” she said.
Back in the studio, the dancers continued to run through the piece. It was late Saturday afternoon and Ms. Matrisciano was looking for more.
“Every single part of you needs to start exuding energy,” she said. “You need to bare your souls, throw your energy into it. You have a free pass. Go nuts.”
The Rise dance company will showcase all of the pieces performed at the competitions at their annual company showcase on April 6 at 4 p.m. at Dreamland in Oak Bluffs.