MORRIS – Disney World might be called the happiest place on Earth, but for a group of local dancers it took a lot of hard work and dedication to get there.
Six students at Donna Mueller’s School of Dance earned their way to compete at Dance America’s Dancer of the Year competition held at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, last week by earning enough points in the regional competitions to land them a spot at nationals.
Ashlyn Punke, 7, of Morris and Ella Wheeler, 9, of Minooka competed in the petite division, against other girls between the ages of 7 and 11, and they both claimed a first-place trophy. Punke with her jazz solo, “Party,” and Wheeler with her hip-hop solo, “Hey Hey Hey.”
“I wasn’t scared,” Ashlyn said. “My mom told me to just have fun.”
She said she was excited to hear her name when she won but the trophy wasn’t the greatest part of her trip – making new friends from other studios around North America was.
Ella agreed hanging out with her friends is the bright side to dance, but her favorite is learning new things and seeing new places.
“It was my first time at Disney,” she said. “My favorite part was when they said I placed in the top 13.”
In addition to the individual dances, the dancers also are judged for a spot in the top 13 overall. The score to make it into the top 13 is based 60 percent on the dancer’s solo, 30 percent on a dance combo they learn and perform with all the dancers in their age group, and 10 percent on an interview with judges.
Jacie Punke, Ashlyn’s 14-year-old sister, placed second in her individual solo and second in a duet with 17-year-old Karys Olsen of Morris. In addition, she was seventh runner-up in the national competition. She said the most difficult part of the competition is the group dance learned at the event.
“Having the experience dancing with others is important,” she said. “When I get to the professional dance world, I’ll have this experience.”
Karys, who was the third runner-up in the senior division nationals, said the competition helps increase her confidence.
“I sometimes feel like I can’t do what other dancers do,” Karys said. “But to finish in the top three, shows me I can.”
Another Punke sister, 12-year-old Mara, said combining a family trip with a dance trip was what she favored most.
Nine-year-old Michaela Harlan of Marseilles competed for the first time at the national level and said there was nothing better than getting on stage and performing her solo.
“This is my first time, and I want to compete more,” she said.
Gaining confidence is a key to a competition like DOTY.
“They realize where they are in the dance world, who is better and where they came from,” Dance school owner Donna Mueller said. “It teaches them how to get out in front of a crowd without hesitation and with confidence.”
LOCAL DANCERS WIN AWARDS
Dance America Dancer of the Year competition Donna Mueller’s School of Dance winners
Personal solo awards:
• Ashlyn Punke - 1st place- Jazz
• Ella Wheeler - 1st place - Hip Hop
• Karys Olsen - 2nd place - Musical Theatre
• Jacie Punke - 2nd place - Jazz
• Michaela Harlan - 5th place - Jazz
• Mara Punke - 5th place - Musical Theatre
• Duet awards: Karys Olsen and Jacie Punke - 2nd place
Top 13 Overall Nationals
• Senior Division - Karys Olsen- 3rd runner-up
• Teen Division- Jacie Punke- 7th runner-up
• Petite Division - Ashlyn Punke - 6th runner-up
• Ella Wheeler - 7th runner-up