Amazing feet


In a Queen Village studio, 10 dancers are rehearsing. They turn, leap, spin and glide across the floor with impressive dexterity and energy as they follow the lead of their director.

These members of Traci Hall & Co. are getting ready for a show Saturday at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. It’s one of many gigs in their crowded schedule this season.

Although the 10 dancers in the company are quite young — they range in age from 13 to 18 — they are serious and seasoned performers. It will be their eighth appearance at the Kimmel Center, where they now have a devoted following.

Saturday’s program of ballet and modern dance features several new works in the company repertoire. "It will be one full hour of nonstop, high-energy dancing," says Traci Hall, executive director of the company.

Hall founded her nonprofit dance company 10 years ago, gearing the program to talented young dancers. The choreographer, teacher and performer is unabashedly proud of her group.

They’ve performed at Penn’s Landing festivals, in City Hall, at the Gallery and in many other venues. They average three or more performances each month. And wherever they dance, the applause is rousing and the letters of praise pour in.

"They were fantastic!" enthused Kimmel Center programming manager Thomas Warner after a recent appearance. "They lit up the stage with their exuberance and their moves," raved the coordinators of a gospel celebration and concert where the young dancers were the stars of the show.

The company also has had a stage on TV during performances on Visions with host Vernon Odom, 10! with host Steve Levy, a Fox Philadelphia Christmas special and more.

Behind the scenes, hard work and high standards are key themes. To be accepted into the company, based at 752 S. Second St., youths need to have had at least five years of serious dance training. And acceptance is only by audition.

"They come in and take a dance class, and that’s their audition," says Hall. "That way, there’s no unnecessary pressure. I get to see their soul. The pulse of this company is dancing from the soul."

She’s not concerned with their height or weight. "They come in all sizes and shapes, but they dance from the soul," she says. "They’re fierce."

And so is the 40-year-old executive director, a dynamo who teaches classes, hires staff, plans performances and even finds time to create choreography for the repertoire; Saturday’s program includes one of her pieces.

The dancers rehearse strenuously for their performances. "Dance takes intense concentration and focus," says Hall. "We can work on one phrase in a piece of choreography for two solid hours."

Besides weekly rehearsals, the performers must take at least four advanced dance classes per week. What’s more, the young dancers must maintain a B in all their major subjects in school.

Aside from the 10 company members, there’s also a junior performing ensemble, ages 9 to 13 — and they have the same requirements. One of the dancers in this ensemble is Hall’s daughter, Anya Marie Rodriguez, 11, a fifth-grader at Girard Academic Music Program. Of course, "she’s held to the same high standards as everyone else," says her mother.

"I’m no softie," Hall says. "I’m really tough. The goal is to strive for excellence not only in dance but in everything we do."

Tall, slender (5-foot-6, size 4) and striking, Hall moves with a dancer’s grace. Intense and enthusiastic, she clearly serves as a role model for her youngsters.

A video about the company shows the close bonds between Hall and the dancers: There are shots of her tightly hugging one or several dancers, comforting them, cheering them on and applauding vigorously when they perform.

"In my own training, people were constantly pushing me, but the nurturing was missing," she says. "So my goal has been to create an atmosphere where you’re held to a high standard — but the love and nurturing are there, too."

Another priority was to create a multicultural company, which now includes dancers of African-American, Asian, Latino, Italian, Irish and Jewish origins. "We’re like a mini United Nations," says Hall. "And the goal is to respect and appreciate differences in others."

There is camaraderie and goodwill in this world of dance. One dancer, Wing Ho Zeng, a Chinese American, calls Hall "the black mother I never had," she reports. "And he always gives me a big hug when he says it."

Just as the dancers are Hall’s second family, the studio is a second home for the South Philly resident. Fortunately, her husband of 12 years, Angel Rodriguez, is "extremely supportive," she says. "And he comes to every single performance."

In the studio, classes are taught by Hall plus 12 staff members, all of them professional artists with area dance companies such as Philadanco and Koresh. To encourage versatility in the dancers, the program also includes a musical theater lab, plus a personal trainer who works one-on-one with each dancer.

Hall never envisioned all this when she first began to think of having her own studio. Ten years ago, she was the dance specialist at William Meredith School, Fifth and Fitzwater. She had only 45 minutes to work with students during their dance period. "They were hooked on dance, but they said, ‘We need more time!’" Hall says.

This fed her dreams of starting her own studio for youngsters. "But it seemed scary — a huge undertaking," she confesses.

Hall was encouraged by Peter Moor, then executive director of United Communities. It was Moor who helped arrange for free space at a settlement house at Sixth and Catharine. He also provided mirrors, dance-floor bars and other needed equipment. The studio started with 30 youngsters from Meredith, and the enterprise has been growing ever since — and gaining recognition and accolades.

PNC Bank selected the company as its 1999 Artist in Residence at the Please Touch Museum, citing Hall and the dancers as "the most imaginative, ambitious and utterly unique."

But it hasn’t always been a smooth waltz. Two years ago, the building that housed Hall’s studio was put up for sale and she had to move. It was one of her students who excitedly told her about available space in a building at Second and Fitzwater.

"What a godsend!" she says of the 3,000 square feet of raw space, which was converted into a first-floor studio and second-floor office.

But recently, this building, too, was put up for sale. "So here we go again," sighs Hall, who is actively looking for new space in South Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the young dancers continue with their classes and rehearsals. And their director continues to take pride and delight in them.

"This dance company gives me such joy and such love," she says. "My spirit is lifted every day that I walk into the studio." spr

Traci Hall & Co. will present a one-hour performance starting at noon Saturday in the Commonwealth Plaza of Kimmel Center, 260 S. Broad St. For more information about the company, call 215-928-3838 or visit