They started out as little girls in baggy tights, eager to be in the first row of their dance classes, but it was a whole different prospect when they found themselves in the front teaching others.


It’s a perspective, it turns out, that is positive from all angles.


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Santa Ynez High School’s Katherine Christensen and Heather Voorhis are also seniors at the Los Olivos Dance Gallery, where they are not only students inspired by some impressive choreographers, but are also inspiring up-and-coming local dancers lucky enough to find themselves in the duo’s Thursday afternoon Hip Hop level 3 class.

“There is more out there than just what is here in this small valley of ours,” says Maggie Mesikep, the studio’s owner. Unlike many in her shoes, Mesikep encourages her students to take as many master classes from as many professionals as they can. Between 15-20 students from her school travel around the country every summer taking classes and workshops, which is exactly what Katherine and Heather did.

They went to The Pulse in Los Angeles where different choreographers from the television show So You Think You Can Dance spend a three-day weekend teaching enthusiastic dance fans. The girls enrolled in the advanced/professional level. They were more interested in learning as much as they could than being with dancers their own age.

“We learned a lot being in the top level. We thought there would be more dancers our own age, but they opted for the intermediate or advanced levels instead,” says Heather. There were many students who came in groups, some from other countries. But there wasn’t really time to socialize, so it didn’t matter. “Everyone was in their own world.”

It was as inspirational as it was hard. “We were sitting in our hotel room on Saturday night talking about everything we had done,” says Katherine.

“We wanted to choreograph something for our own show, so Maggie had us teach a summer intensive to see if we understood our counts and how to convey them to students,” says Heather. They did, so Mesikep decided to let them have a go at teaching a class of their own.

Katherine is graceful, has a great sense of humor and a kind way when working with people, Mesikep says with a smile, as the two girls bounce into the studio. With dance bags thrown over their shoulders, they happily exchange ideas as they head into the studio to prepare for their class. Mesikep follows them with her eyes.

Mesikep said it is both a way for the younger students to get a chance to learn a new style of Hip Hop, and to enjoy the excitement of learning from the slightly older peers they esteem. It’s been a good journey for the seniors as well, who at all times are supervised by an adult instructor.

Jessica Ruiz, who takes on that role, has taught both Heather and Katherine over the years. “It’s a great experience for them and the kids as well.”

Katherine tends to be a little timid when it comes to trying new things, but then finds herself really good at it when she does, while Heather is energetic, spunky and encouraging. They make a good pair. “It’s good for the kids to learn from the girls who have more energy than the adults, and who can do all the tricks themselves.”

Energy abounded as the students entered the studio en masse. As the music began, the mostly 11-13 year-olds moved in unison to a carefully choreographed pattern of warm-up exercises that could easily be mistaken for a finished piece. Mouths were engaged in smiles, not talk, as they moved in harmony to the beat of the music. There was no need for talk. They all knew what was expected of them. Visitor and photographer ignored, they presented the level of concentration every teacher longs for.

But while both Heather and Katherine can teach, they can dance as well. Heather, who like her sisters, has danced with Mesikep since she was little and is electric on stage. “She has both a great personality and good form. She really feels the music,” says Mesikep.

The two are not the only Dance Gallery students who have come full-circle, from student to teacher. Mesikep has had former students go on to study dance at college, and even move on to dance professionally. Some have come back to teach for her.

A number of well-known professionals have also taught at the studio, whose walls have been signed by Wade Robson and Robert Sund. Wade won an Emmy in 2007 for a piece titled Ramalama, which he choreographed for Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance television show. He also came to the Valley to teach the piece to Mesikep’s students, who have performed it as well.

Among Sund’s many accomplishments, he created two award-winning ballets for television, and received three Emmys including “Outstanding Entertainment Special” and another Emmy for choreography. He set a piece for the Dance Gallery’s performance later this year.

Joe Istre, who teaches with the American Ballet Theater summer intensive program, will be at the studio next week to teach a piece to Heather, Katherine and their fellow Jazz 9 dancers. A dancer himself, Istre has performed in such shows as 42nd St., Chess, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and was part of the Dirty Dancing Tour. Among his other credits, he assisted with the West End show Hot Mikado in London, the Tony nominated Broadway show Ain’t Broadway Grand, and the German version of Beauty and the Beast.

With access to such nationally acclaimed choreographers/dancers, it is not surprising that Katherine and Heather have set their sights high, but the pair is down-to-earth just the same. Both are members of the National Charity League and donate many hours to local charities each year. Both participate in extracurricular activities around their high school campus. Katherine is the ASB representative for the school board, and Heather can routinely be found performing in school plays.

Both feel inspired to keep dancing and keep teaching. “It’s interesting to go from being a student to a teacher,” says Katherine. Heather agrees. “It’s good to see both sides.”

struax@syvjournal.com