Dance Kids ATL premieres Wednesday, July 24, at 10/9 CT on TLC.
When Sindy Schneider was an up-and-coming dancer in Atlanta, she and her friends were frustrated by the lack of a professional organization in the region devoted exclusively to hoofers hoping to make it in the business. They decided to start a network of their own, assembling 40 dance pals into a Yahoo e-group they called Dance 411.
A month later, the group had grown to 500 members eager to share information, tips and contacts, and Schneider knew she was onto something. Dance 411 began hosting classes and, in time, evolved into the South’s premier studio for working with and creating national-caliber dancers and instructors.
“Being that I was in that dance world, I was able to connect with a lot of choreographers and some of the young choreographers that started out of Atlanta, like Divine Stevens and Jamaica Craft,” Schneider explains. “And then I partnered up with Nefertiti Robinson, who has an amazing background in dance, and she was able to bring her connections and that’s how we were able to build Dance 411 Studios and build the industry connections — which in turn benefits our students, because they come and they take [classes] and we can also groom them and introduce them into the professional world of booking jobs.”
Now Schneider, Robinson and their staff are showing off the fruits of their labors in TLC’s new hourlong special Dance Kids ATL, which premieres Wednesday night at 10/9CT.
Spotlighting a group of talented teen and preteen hip-hop dancers prepping for a huge competition with renowned dancer/choreographer Sean Bankhead — who has worked with Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Bruno Mars and others — and head dance coach Tracey Berry, the special presents an refreshingly uplifting look at kids who dream of making it big in the entertainment industry, and the adults devoted to making those dreams come true.
“It’s so crazy because I started out with Sindy and Nefertiti at Dance 411 Studios when I was their age,” says Bankhead of why he still takes time from his international career to teach at the studio. “So it’s come around full circle for me and I’ve always felt like it’s important to pass the knowledge along. You want to pass it to the next generation.”
“These kids are taking classes from Sean on a Thursday night and on Friday they may turn on the TV and watch the BET Awards and see Ciara’s music video premiere that Sean also choreographed and they may also see him on a commercial,” Schneider adds. “So they’re truly learning from professional working dancers and instructors.”
But if you’re expecting Dance Moms-style drama in which the young dancers and their talent are secondary to adult egos and conflicts, you’re in for an exhilarating surprise. While Dance Kids ATL pulls no punches on the sacrifices the dancers and their families make in pursuit of their dreams and the resulting pressures on everyone, Dance Kids ATL is all about the kids and encouraging their unique brand of talent.
“I talked to Sindy about this a couple years ago that if we ever had some type of TV show, I felt it was really important to focus on the positive side of dance — because I felt like that wasn’t represented on TV,” Bankhead says. “It was always some type of competition and someone getting yelled at and I really felt like there’s another side of the dance world, especially in the South. People are more laid back and relaxed and friendly, and more open here. We are a community in the South — and we’re still a new community and we’re growing and it’s based in a positive outlook.”
Thus, Bankhead and Berry’s style is unfailingly supportive. When 13-year-old dancer Zoie Thomas struggles with her confidence and Bankhead’s intricate choreography, the pair listens patiently to her and offers firm but positive correction. When the group’s anchor, LaKendra Kennedy, 13, injures her ankle on the eve of competition, the instructors trust her to make the best decision for herself and the group. And when two new dancers, 13-year-olds Carly Olson and Elijah Oliver, are added to the mix, the other kids welcome them excitedly.
Even the parents get along, comparing notes on the challenges of the dance-kid lifestyle and planning matching outfits for competition day.
Schneider says that environment is key to encouraging both kids who know they were born to dance and kids who aren’t sure if the spotlight is for them but want to improve their skills all the same. And a few — like charismatic 9-year-old Donielle “DeeDee” Hansley — who are a little bit of both.
“When DeeDee first came to Dance 411, he was a little bit shy,” Schneider says of the adorable boy whose sister Nyielle, 11, is also a part of the competition team. “It took him a while before he broke out of his shell — but it was still inside of him. The environment that we created at Dance 411 is so inviting in the sense that we want to see your style. We want to see you embrace your style and then you can embrace mine and we can learn from each other. It encourages that child that may not be a natural to express themselves and eventually be more like DeeDee ended up being.”
“I was a shy, quiet kid and dancing really gave me confidence,” Bankhead adds. “So if you are a wallflower, but you have all this talent, we really allow you to express it and then you get more comfortable with yourself and your dance style and you can start to take over the world with it.”
That’s why Bankhead insists that his students take their talents out of the studio and into the streets where he himself first tapped into his own talent. The kids and their parents regularly take part in Atlanta’s legendary freestyle dance battles called “cyphers.”
“That’s probably the biggest thing that I wished that the world would get to really see,” Bankhead says. “I learned dance from a thousand different choreographers — not just choreographers from traveling abroad. I was a street dancer. I really didn’t learn about the professional thing until I was about 17 or 18. I learned how to dance from going to parties and going to clubs and going to underground battles. When you go to events like that, there are dancers from all over the world who you rub shoulders with and you pick up different traits and you learn different moves and different styles and different grooves that get passed along. A lot of the dance crazes come from the underground scene in Atlanta — everything from the Lean Wit It Rock Wit It to the Stanky Legg to the Stripper Squat to the Big Booty to the Dougie. They all came from Atlanta, and the crazy thing is a lot of cities will pick up on these dances and create their own songs to them.”
“Atlanta has its own hip-hop style that everybody wants a piece of,” Schneider concludes. “Dancers and choreographers will fly into Atlanta to take classes from Dance 411 to learn our style and take it back to their places to teach their kids and their artists or whomever they’re working with. So this show is about the kids and their development and what they’re doing to showcase ‘ATL style.’ I’m so excited that finally we get that opportunity to show the world what we’re about here. Because these kids are amazing!”
Dance Kids ATL airs Wednesday, July 24 at 10/9CT on TLC.