“My parents put me in dance when I was six because I was painfully shy. They thought it would encourage interaction – I fell in love with it in the first class!”
Kayla Kellen started dancing at the age of six, which she says is pretty late in the dance world – many students start at two or three years old. However, her passion for dance allowed her to catch up and surpass her peers very quickly. She became a teacher’s assistant by the time she was 10 and choreographed her first musical at age 12.
“I practiced wherever I found space – the basement, the garage, any surface I could find. I danced constantly! I was always trying to learn more, teach myself things. This was without resources like YouTube,” said Kayla.
Her first dance style was jazz, and it remains her favorite because there is so much that can be done in the jazz genre. She quickly added other types of dance and spent three days a week in the studio feeding her passion. She danced competitively for years, stayed in dance class throughout high school, and a bit into her college years.
At age 19, a full-time college student, Kayla opened Sioux City Rhythm Avenue dance academy and made the shift to dance instructor. The business grew and four years later moved to a larger space in Sergeant Bluff. Last year she merged with The Arena, and today operates the Arena Dance Academy.
She currently has approximately 80 dance students. “I start working with them as soon as they are potty-trained. Some will stay in throughout high school. I even have a few college students that will come back to use the studio when they have breaks,” said Kayla. The classes are set up by age and include various stations to accommodate different levels of experience and skill. “It’s beneficial for beginners to have advanced dancers in the same room to inspire them,” she explained.
“I think about dancing 24 hours a day! I don’t think I would be able to function without dance somehow incorporated into my life. Dance has opened so many doors,” Kayla explained. “I spent a month living in New York when I was in high school. Attending workshops there – intense performing arts focused on dancing, singing, and theatre. I got to perform on a Broadway stage at the end of that time. I’ve danced in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Omaha. I traveled a lot and still travel to learn. I like to go to conventions all over the place to learn more. Conventions are my opportunity to be back in the student role again and learn,” said Kayla.
It’s clear in talking with her, that Kayla is equally as passionate about her kids at the Arena Dance Academy as she is about her own dancing. “When I see that spark in them, it brings so much joy to me. I always call my students my kids because I take my role in their lives very seriously. I wear many hats in regard to my relationship with them – sometimes I’m a big sister, sometimes I’m mom, sometimes I’m a doctor, therapist, chauffeur- you name it. I truly love them so much, I wear every hat with pride.”
The last 20 years of teaching have presented many challenges, but 2020 may have held the most. “During the pandemic, we were forced to transition to an online platform. I had to think creatively to provide not only online classes that would be beneficial to my kids, but additional resources to help them cope. ”
She went on to further explain, “When proms were canceled, my heart cried for my six seniors. I was determined to give them this rite of passage. We held a virtual prom. We drove to their houses to take pictures in their prom gowns, we all jumped on zoom and danced for hours. We gave away prizes just like a typical after-prom party.”
In addition, most of their competitions were canceled, so their studio General Manager (Gretchen Cooper) and Kayla started a virtual competition. Dancers from all over the world submitted videos to be judged and compete. “We even mailed trophies to all the winners,” shared Kayla.
For someone who truly has a song in her heart and rhythm in her feet, nothing can stand in the way. “Dance is something you can do your entire life. Your body ability changes but there is some way to move and be happy. And the beat goes on. . . .”