August 19, 2019
You could say that Dancers Inc. founder Dan Hilla-Barris has show business in his blood. He started dancing at age 4. Dan describes himself as a working musical theater performer from age 7. By his mid-20s, he had played Rooster in a regional theater production of Annie, and was performing in touring shows, and on TV programs. He says, “I could not stop working—and I loved it.”
In college, Dan knew that he wanted to do something with education, but somehow couldn’t see himself as a regular classroom teacher, sticking to a single subject for 8 hours a day. After a musical theater career took him all over the country, Dan founded a performing arts school in Manasquan, New Jersey, which he ran for 20 years. He also taught for several schools throughout New Jersey and New England.
Dan eventually became a competition judge, and found it was something he loved doing. And the feeling was evidently mutual: He was consistently ranked as the best judge by kids in the competitions he adjudicated. He laughs: “Studios in Long Island actually gave me a medal.” Why? “I think because I play by the rules, and I expect other people to do so as well.”
He started Dancers Inc. at age 40, breaking away from competitions at which he’d been judging to pursue his own vision of spreading dance education, hoping to provide substantive, meaningful critique to young dancers.
Dancers Inc. also has three competitive levels—beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Novice or competitive categories had been the norm, but Dan wanted to serve the whole spectrum of student dancers. His competition judges are some of the dance industry’s most sought-after teachers.
Dan also became a passionate advocate for children’s rights. “At Dancers Inc. I want to create an environment where kids can be the best they can be—the best dancers, the best people—and to do that, you have to make them comfortable, to let the best parts of them shine. I don’t understand how you have to be mean to compete with someone. What kids really need is to be cared for and be taken seriously.”
He says: “I really enjoy the education side of dance, all the dance forms, but especially making sure that dancers are dancing stronger and better and correctly.” To that end, he likes to hire seasoned judges, professionals who have worked in the industry.
Another important component of a competition weekend: fun! Dan says, “If I don’t have fun at my own show, then I’m not doing my job properly. I like to set things up so I’ve got my ducks in a row and I can enjoy myself! And people are spending money to participate—we owe them a good show, an on-time schedule.”
Asked why an association like The ADCC is important, he says, “Having people in the industry support each other is important—having competitions get along shows studios that it can be done.”
As for changes he sees in the dance competition world, Dan says: “I see people getting back to training and classic styles, making the technical side and showmanship work together. That’s exciting. I love seeing kids realize that to perform onstage, they have to really perform in the classroom. They have to bring it in both arenas.”