Sparking a Movement

Project Spark is a dance team that unites New York City high school students under their shared passion for urban dance.

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By Ismath Maksura

Beyond the boundaries of a student’s grade level, background, and even high school, Project Spark unites high school students from all across New York City through their dedication to urban dance. Founded in early 2018 by Peter Lee (’18), Philip Park (’18), Kristina Kim (’18), Queenie Xiang (’18), and Johnny Weng (’18), this dance team aims to provide students with the opportunity to grow as dancers and become more involved with the local dance community. Because many high schools do not have dance teams, Project Spark, stylized as Project SPARK, provides a community to anyone interested in pursuing urban dance, even if they have no prior experience.

The origins of this dance team can be found in Stuyvesant’s own dance team: Stuy Legacy. Stuy Legacy, founded in 2016, established a strong dance community within Stuyvesant and allowed people to develop as dancers and compete in competitions. However, only Stuyvesant students were allowed to join the team. Lee, who was the executive director of Stuy Legacy at the time, wanted to create a separate dance team that was available to all New York high school students to give them the opportunity to find a place in the New York urban dance scene. This prompted Lee to invite a small group of seniors in Stuy Legacy to found and direct Project Spark. Some high schools that are represented in Project Spark include Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Technical, Francis Lewis, and John Bowne.

For students interested in joining, the process of trying out for Project Spark takes place in two parts: a learning day and the actual tryouts. On the learning day, directors or choreographers in the team, who are usually upperclassmen, teach a routine to the people auditioning. A few days later, the auditionees perform the choreography in the studio in groups of three to five people in front of the directors. The directors discuss for a couple of hours before sending out emails to the auditionees with their final results. “Part of Project Spark’s mission statement is to provide dance opportunities to people who have never been in the dance community before, so the team would actually love to have people who haven’t danced before—as long as they show potential and are eager to grow,” Park said.

Though part of the team’s goal is to introduce dance to people who have minimal or no dance experience, the auditions are fairly competitive. While over 100 students audition each season, only 30 to 40 people get accepted. Park explained, “Even though inexperienced dancers are welcomed by Project Spark, they will still need to do their absolute best to stand out in the pool of auditionees.” This does not mean that students with less experience will struggle to keep up, however. During the official season, there are training periods in which the team takes dance classes together and teach the moves to those who are inexperienced.

Students who are accepted into the team attend practices, which take place two or three times a week and last around two hours. For some, this time commitment can be challenging. But some, like senior Sharon Zhou, found ways around this. “When I have a staggering amount of work, I would do [it] on the side in the studio when I’m not needed,” she said. Other members manage schoolwork by doing work during lunch or free periods, staying up late, or going to cafes. At the end of the day, everyone is exhausted and so members “always try to cheer each other on from the side, and that gives [them] motivation to continue to push more,” Zhou added. While times can get tough, “I don’t look at dance as an obstacle for me doing well in school but rather as a resource to encourage me to do better,” senior Darren Jin said.

As the Spark community continues to grow, its members are eager to showcase their skills. During a day of a competition, the team often commutes together and arrives at the venue, which is usually located in a school auditorium, early to prepare and get accustomed to the stage. From there, “the directors ‘clean’ their members so that everyone is essentially synchronized, and any final questions about certain moves are clarified,” Jin said. Competitions often take up the whole day for the dancers due to tech rehearsals and makeup. However, the actual show takes around two or three hours with each team performing for four to six minutes. Each team performs in a set order, with more prestigious teams bringing up the rear of the show. After all the teams finish performing, the judges, who are esteemed dancers in the community, determine winners by averaging each team’s scores, which consists of a range of categories such as staging and performance. Finally, the third, second, and first place winners are announced and awarded.

After their performance is over, members also have the opportunity to “witness difference teams, styles, and ideas, and many more from other teams performing,” senior Vincent Zheng said. Because there’s time gaps in between performances, “members get to explore the venue and have fun,” Zheng added.

For each member of Project Spark, dance is a passion that has impacted their lives. Park believes dance is “a tool of expression that can be stylized to match the personality of the person using it.” He described how choreographers interpret the music and move their bodies in innovative ways to express themselves and how urban dance in particular grows with culture. “Dancing is so versatile and open to interpretation; every routine paints a different picture to anyone who watches it,” Jin agreed. “Dance is a form of art just like a painting or a drawing, and when people watch me perform, I like to give the audience the opportunity to think about what each routine that I perform means to them.”

The team was named to show the impact they want to have on spreading their passion to others. “We ended up calling the team ‘Project Spark’ because we wanted this team to be a catalyst that would spark a greater urban dance movement within all New York City high schools,” Park explained. “And now, two years [after its founding], I am very happy to see how Project Spark is affecting the lives of its members in incredibly positive ways, allowing them to be part of the global urban dance world and inspiring them to join [or] create dance communities wherever they are.”