'Why not dance together?'
Six years ago, when John D'Auria planned a dance competition in memory of his cousin Willie, he wasn't sure if it would work. He'd planned the competition in three weeks, gathering what sponsors he could, printed posters with his own copier and spread the word throughout the community.
The first Willie Kruger Dance Competition was held at the Horseshoe Billards and Bar on a Sunday afternoon. And five minutes before the contest was scheduled to begin, D'Auria had no dancers.
"There was a lot of doubt," D'Auria said. "People had said there'd be no interest in a dance competition. You can't pull it together in three weeks. It's impossible. And I had no idea if any dancers were even going to show up."
As he stood at the door, 10 people filed into the bar and asked if they were in the right place for a dance competition.
"I said, 'You're all dancers?' and they nodded. And I said, 'All right, 10 is good enough for me."
Fast forward six years and D'Auria is busier than he expected, preparing for the sixth annual Willie Kruger Dance Competition to be held at the Grandma's Sports Garden Dec. 4. This year's show will include a performance by Denfeld High School's show choir Solid Gold, local rap artist Joseph Black, Jordan Otis and Tyler Hnatek, and a Native American dance exhibition featuring Angela Buffalo, Daniel Isham and others. Last year's contest drew 400 spectators, over two dozen individual performers and nine group competitors.
"How it's grown is amazing. I never expected it to reach the level it's at right now," D'Auria said.
Last year, D'Auria achieved one of the goals he's held since the competition started: students from local dance schools competing against street dancers.
"We've always had a lot of different styles of street dance, but the schools around here didn't really take this competition seriously and show up," D'Auria said. "But last year we had dancers from Madill, Dream Dance Academy, Elite Dance School and Superior Ballroom dance. That was something I'd always wanted to see. Why not have everyone dance together?"
But with more dancers, D'Auria also found he needed to change his scoring system. Until this year, he's always used a bracket system and had dancers face off in multiple rounds. But he noticed that having to dance multiple rounds was wearing out some of the best dancers.
"Sometimes they'd end up dancing two or three times to get to the finals, then by then they're tired out or don't have enough routines to keep going. I was aware that it was starting to wear on dancers' performances. People who I thought personally could have won a final didn't because they were gassed or burned out by the final dance," D'Auria said. This year he's changing to a scoring system for the judges which will rank dancers based on factors such as creativity, energy and engagement. But the scores will not be announced at the competition.
"One of my other goals is to build these kids' confidence and I don't think I can do that if we're saying this person got a 5 and this person got a 9 in front of everyone. So if the kid's parent or coach want to come and ask for a score, they can, but we won't announce it," D'Auria said.
The judges for this year's competition will be Alexis Ericson, a former instructor at Sterling Silver Studio, Andrea Kuzel of Superior Ballroom Dance Studio and Mayor Emily Larson.
"Right now, I'm not aware if the mayor has any dance experience or not, but I think it'll be really cool to have her," D'Auria said.
The competition is in honor of D'Auria's cousin Willie Kruger, who died in 2010. This year, the contest is also dedicated to Kruger's sister-in-law, Julie Kruger, who died unexpectedly of a stroke earlier this year. Donations will be accepted for Julie's family.
The competition is free and open to the public. Registration begins at 11 a.m. Dec. 4 at Grandma's Sports Garden 425 S. Lake Ave. The show runs 2-6 p.m. Dancers age 9 and up can register for a solo slot and/or as a group.