Pottstown dancers headed to Olympic performance

Dancers work on "The Evolution of Dance," the piece they will perform in London.
Dancers work on "The Evolution of Dance," the piece they will perform in London. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 07, 2012

The invitation to perform at a special event in London during the Olympics seemed so out of the blue Michelle Jones Wurtz thought it was a scam.

The owner and director of the Pottstown Dance Theatre was puzzled, excited, and suspicious - all at the same time.

So Wurtz called the American Association of Performing Arts Educators (AAPAE), the Florida group that sent the letter. She also began researching the group to make sure it was legit.

When she found out the invitation was real, the euphoria set in. That was two years ago. On Monday, 22 dancers ages 13 to 18 will board a plane for London. They will perform Aug. 12 (just before the closing ceremonies) on a stage at Island Gardens, a park on the north bank of the Thames River.

"Going to the Olympics to break-dance was the last thing I thought I'd be doing," said Tim Neilson, 18, of Douglassville. "But just being in the whole atmosphere, I'm pumped."

The members of the 48-year-old Pottstown Dance Theatre school are among 32 dance groups invited to perform at Island Gardens and at a festival at Warwick Castle, which was built by William the Conqueror.

The Absecon Academy of Performing Arts from South Jersey and the Excel Dance Company of Allentown will also perform.

The AAPAE, an advocacy group that offers performance opportunities in a noncompetitive atmosphere, organized the events, as it did during the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The Pottstown group was recommended by the Excel company, said Matthew Straub, AAPAE event producer.

"I could tell when I talked to Michelle that she valued education more than showbiz," Straub said during a telephone interview from London. "When I looked at the videos, I could see she could choreograph and she could tell a story."

The Pottstown dance school offers classes in ballet, tap, modern, jazz, African, and hip-hop to 200 students at the theater's headquarters, a converted house on Main Street in Pottstown.

"We were jumping up and down in the beginning, then we were tired from working hard," said teacher Bridget Bennett-Schall, whose daughter Katie, 13, will be performing. "Now, we're just anxious. It's hurry up, let's go."

The group will perform The Evolution of Dance, choreographed by Wurtz and teacher Matt Torchia.

The 30-minute piece is divided into nine sections, each focusing on a style of dance taught by the school. The audience will get a taste of styles including hip-hop, Irish step, and ballet with music that ranges from Vivaldi to Nelly.

"I really wanted to showcase their talent so that everyone had an area of dance that's their niche," said Wurtz, who is also artistic director of the Schuylkill Valley Regional Dance Company.

The students (18 girls, 4 boys) have been practicing since January. Rehearsals were held once a week, and dancers were required to take one to three dance classes weekly to sharpen their technique.

Wurtz sent applications to 50 of the school's students to gauge interest; 26 forms came back. Some students couldn't afford the $3,500-per-person price tag. Others were too busy with their studies. In the end, 22 dancers will travel to London, part of a group of 53 that includes family, friends, teachers, and chaperones.

Neilson's whole family is going. Brother Max is a break dancer. Sister Elsie does modern and hip-hop. Their mother, Katherine, will chaperone, and their father, Robert - an obstetrician-gynecologist who has delivered some of the students in the dance school - will go as well.

On Wednesday, during the troupe's last rehearsal before jetting to London, Alexa Lurie gracefully dropped to the floor in the modern-dance routine while Jane Body moved boldly in an African dance performed to drumbeats and chants.

"We're so excited," said Lurie, 13, of Pottstown, who added that she was "blown away" when she found out the troupe would be going to London.

Body said she "can't wait" to see the athletes and to soak up the Olympic energy in her first trip to Britain.

But at least one person with the dance company knows what it feels like not only to perform in London, but to do so for the queen.

In 1965, Charlotte Jones, Wurtz's mother, who is also the dance school's general manager, played flugelhorn in a Salvation Army band that performed for Queen Elizabeth at Coventry Cathedral.

Jones, now 69, was 22 at the time and took the event for granted.

"When the kids started to complain about being tired, I told them, 'This will be an enriching experience,' " Jones said, "because when I look back, [the performance for the queen] was a highlight of my life."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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