When asked to describe the energy at this month's Youth America Grand Prix Finals, judge Sascha Radetsky had one word: "Stratospheric."
More than 800 dancers from around the United States—selected from 10,000 who'd taken part in regional events—competed onstage at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Florida, for the competition's season Finals from May 9 to 16. And after months of cramped kitchen-counter barres and delayed Zoom connections, for many serious ballet students, the opportunity to perform onstage had never felt quite so sweet.
"Probably one of the best parts was bowing at the end," says 16-year-old Brady Farrar, who trains at multiple studios in Miami. "I just took a moment to look up at the audience, and listen to them clapping and cheering. Every two seats or so were empty, but they more than made up for it."
Of course, the competition wasn't exactly business as usual. If dancers wanted to perform unmasked, they were required to get tested and/or show their vaccination card. Everyone—including the socially distanced judges and audience members—had their faces covered at all other times. The different age divisions were also staggered throughout the week so there were fewer people in the theater at any given time.
"A huge part of competing is networking, and it's harder to recognize new faces in masks," says Clara Thiele, 16, from the Draper Center for Dance Education. "And, of course, facial expression is a major part of dancing." Although she used her vaccination card to perform mask-less, all the dancers kept their masks on during the scholarship class, which is where she'd been hoping to receive an offer. "I'm graduating high school early and hoping to go away to a ballet school," she says. "My dream would be the John Cranko School or Royal Ballet School."
Clara Thiele competing at YAGP Finals
Star Action Shots, Courtesy YAGP
Still, she says, mask or no mask, most dancers were thrilled simply to be able to be in the same room together. "Being in a class with 50 boys my age, having fun by trying to one-up each other in class, I haven't gotten that in a while," says Farrar. "It was awesome."
"Last year, we didn't get to dance onstage. We didn't get to be inspired by other competitors," adds 20-year-old Styles Dykes, who trains with Jessica Odasz and Andrea Astuto in Rochester, New York. "We've learned not to take these moments for granted."
For Dykes, who graduated high school in the middle of the pandemic, competing at Finals was also an essential career opportunity. "This could possibly be one of the last times I'm seen by multiple companies at once," he said a couple days before taking the stage. "Since I don't have the means to do a lot of traveling to go on audition tours, this could be a very defining moment in my career and I need to make sure that it counts."
The results will be announced in a virtual awards ceremony on Wednesday, May 26, at 7 pm Eastern on the YAGP YouTube channel. Though they're usually given at the end of Finals week, this year, the competition allowed extra time for remote judges to review performances virtually, and for international schools to finalize additional scholarship offers.
Radetsky, artistic director of the ABT Studio Company, says that there was steep competition this year for the top spots. "The dancers just left their hearts onstage," he says. "It felt like everyone had a new sense of gratitude and sense of urgency. The junior boys especially, a good dozen of them blew our socks off. They were definitely better than I was at that age, probably better than I was ever."