Raise the Barre: The YAGP Finals Come to Purchase

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

By Sasha Ray



(left to right) Zoila Tiangco-Saakes, Sean Miller and Nanami Hiyamizu, participants and dancers from The Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in Florida (Photo by Sasha Ray).

Dancers from all over the world flocked to Purchase last Friday for the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix, or YAGP. Recognized as the world’s biggest ballet-exclusive dance competition, the YAGP is recognized as a highly competitive and intense enterprise. Westchester welcomed dance students from more than 36 different countries to perform, compete, and have the opportunity to win awards and scholarships.


The daily competition lineup, posted on the wall of the dance building in the mornings, clarifies when certain competitors are due in the spotlight. With a regular competition day commencing at 8:15 a.m., dancers attend class.


“Most dancers, anytime they perform, take a class before they go onstage,” said Carey Brown, the music coordinator for the Conservatory of Dance. “It’s a warm-up for them.”

Participants flurry around campus, relaying between the dance building, PAC, and dining establishments to grab a bite before their next class or performance.


Young dancers shared their experience as first-time competitors at an event of this level.

“I think it’s really amazing, just being able to see all the dancers around the world,” said Poppie Hollander, 14, from Christchurch, New Zealand.


“This is our first time, so we’re quite scared going into it,” said Hollander’s studiomate Sonia Woods, 13. “But it’s been a really good experience, and everyone’s been so welcoming and nice around here.”


“It’s nerve-wracking, because everyone’s perfect,” said Giuliana Maria Nunes, a competitor from Paraguay. “You have to be different to stand out.”


“In our country, art is not considered important,” said Gabriela Cabanas Luraghi, also from Paraguay. “Art is just a hobby, not for a living. Here, it’s everything.”


If not anxiously awaiting their cue in the wings, dancers shake out their nerves by running their dances in a small area of carpet on the upper level of the PAC, stretch, or pose for pictures. Sponsors Capezio, Discount Dance Supply, Grishko, Gaynor Minden, and Rosa Ballet set up shop throughout the venue for performers, selling everything from pointe shoes to souvenir key chains.


“The competition is insane,” said Emma Lark, a mother of a 15-year-old competitor from Denver, Colorado. “Worldwide insanity. They come from everywhere.”


As well as competing, applicants/competitors were given the opportunity to take a variety of master classes, held in the dance building, to brush up on their technique or just stay on top of their game.


YAGP competitors practice in the Dance Building (Photo by Sasha Ray).

“It’s kind of a large force in the competitive world of ballet,” said Brown. “These kids are amazing. Some of the kids who are 9 and 10 years old are looking like professionals, so it’s a really high level of dance. We also enjoy it as musicians, getting to play for them.”

Dancers are easily identified through shiny, tight ballet buns and YAGP lanyards, stating their names, studios, and countries of residence.


“They expect greatness,” said Watmora Casey, a classical ballet teacher and the artistic director at the Faubourg Ballet Theater Arts school in Hanover Park, Illinois. He expects nothing different. A former ballet dancer himself, Casey has been teaching for 30 years, and has had students win varying categories in years past.


“This is my first time doing finals, and my third time doing YAGP,” said Mikaela Stewart, 17, from San Diego. “I’m hoping just to get seen, experience master classes from people who I don’t normally take classes from, and meet new people. It’s a performance opportunity too, of course.” After graduating from high school a year early, Stewart plans to audition for ballet companies in the upcoming dance season, “both national and international,” Stewart said.


Throughout the weekend up until Tuesday night, students leaped, turned, and defied gravity in both the PepsiCo Theater and Recital Hall stages. Jeweled costume details sparkled under the stage lights as numbers were called out in order by category (solos, pas de deuxs, ensemble groups) and age. Finalists are selected through the competition held throughout the weekend for the finals second round, held in New York City, concluding on April 20.

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