Earlier this year, a local GoFundMe campaign helped to send a Northside dance team to the prestigious National Starpower Competition in Las Vegas. And not only did the girls from Dance City show up in the desert last month to challenge more than 100 of the best teams from around the country—they came back home to North Minneapolis as national champions.
Their talent and tenacity caught the attention of two of the most legendary dance studios in the world: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, and the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles, both of which have extended invitations to the 25 members of Dance City, ages four to 17, to train in their hallowed halls.
Northside 4 life
You could say that Dance City was the vision of its founder and director, Cierra Burnaugh. Although Burnaugh is quick to credit her dance moms as the impetus for the small but mighty dance studio that is now the pride of the North Side. “It’s possible that none of this would have ever happened if it wasn’t for them,” she explains.
For as long as she can remember, dance was at the center of Burnaugh’s life. Born and raised in North Minneapolis, Burnaugh loved performing and admits she was into the “sparkly costumes” too, choreographing routines for her friends and making sure their outfits always matched. “It was very serious to me,” she recalls.
At the age of five she started classes over North at the Hollywood Studio of Dance before studying for years under Linda Green at the Art of Dance Studio, where upon graduating from high school Burnaugh became a teacher herself.
While balancing careers as an HR professional and a dance instructor, she realized she needed a break. “I’d been involved with dance basically my whole life,” Burnaugh says. “It meant everything to me. But I was burned out. I just wanted some time away. Even if it was just for a year.”
She informed Green, and only Green, of her decision. However, that didn’t stop a group of dedicated and determined moms from tracking her down. “They came and found me to say how much their daughters loved me and that they didn’t want anyone else to teach them.”
That’s how Dance City was born.
Starting with 15 girls in 2015, Burnaugh partnered with the Minneapolis Public Schools and her alma mater, North Community High School, to find rehearsal space. Dance City was consistently winning prizes across the metro area, even traveling to competitions in cities such as Chicago, Dallas and Daytona Beach.
Then in January of 2020, with the assistance of David Grady, Dance City opened its own space on West Broadway Avenue. But a few months later, Covid-19 shut down the world and Burnaugh was forced to stop classes for the next year. “David was so nice to us,” notes Burnaugh, adding that he understood that the arrangement just wouldn’t work out because of the pandemic.
When it was finally safe to resume training, Dance City returned to North High, where they were welcomed back by Principal Mauri Friestleben. While she deeply appreciates the relationship that allows the girls to rehearse and train at North, Burnaugh admits that she’d love Dance City to have its own place again one day. “These girls deserve that.”
Opportunity of a lifetime
The girls of Dance City don’t just win trophies; they also do their own fundraising. Whether it’s car washes, selling concessions at North High sporting events, or other efforts, they are truly putting in the work.
This past winter, Hattie Webb witnessed this firsthand. A veteran PR specialist in the Twin Cities whose extensive experience includes television and entertainment, professional sports, and the airline industry, Webb fell in love with Dance City in, of all places, Cub Foods.
“These beautiful little Black girls walked up to me asking if they could help bag my groceries,” says Webb. “They were so polite, poised, confident. I had to learn more about them.”
The girls were raising money so that Dance City could compete in Las Vegas. After speaking to their mothers, Webb provided her contact information, hoping to soon connect with Burnaugh. “I think I can help you,” she told the girls and their moms.
Webb had been looking for a way to give back, to make a difference, particularly on the North Side where, she laments, “All the stories seem to be so negative, always pointing out the violence and personal tragedy. But there is so much more to North Minneapolis than what we hear in the news.”
“Meeting these girls was an answer to my prayers,” she adds. “This is what I’d been waiting for. God put these children in my path.”
She was invited to a rehearsal and her love for Dance City only grew. She marveled at how disciplined the girls were, just like “professional athletes.” And she couldn’t help but take notice of how they all supported one another.
Webb soon became the volunteer marketing director and encouraged Burnaugh to create a GoFundMe page to get Dance City to Vegas. Webb used her media savvy to shine a spotlight on the girls. Within days, they’d reached their goal and had the funds they needed to travel to Vegas.
When Dance City arrived at the competition in June, they found themselves going up against the best of the best—teams from California, Miami, New York City, and so many other places.
“A lot of these teams had already danced on television,” Burnaugh says, “Disney, Nickelodeon, and the like.” But her girls were ready.
“We went there expecting to have a great time, to make a good showing,” she continues, “But Dance City went out there and showed the nation what the North Side was all about.”
The impact that Dance City has already made on the lives of its members is, in a word, indelible. Three of the girls who started with Burnaugh eight years ago have matriculated to HBCUs, where two are continuing their dance careers and the other is pursuing cheerleading. “The sky is the limit for these girls,” observes Burnaugh.
Now the national champs have received invitations to both the Ailey school in October and Allen’s academy next spring. And, Dance City has initiated another fundraising campaign so that its members can train at two of the most elite conservatories in the world.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime. The world needs to know about these girls,” declares Webb, adding that the trauma that some of them have experienced is more than most people could ever imagine.
“They’re not afraid to tell you what they’ve seen. But they don’t want pity. They show up. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, “And still they rise.”
If you would like to help the girls from Dance City experience this amazing opportunity, visit www.gofundme.com/f/help-these-national-champs-blossom-grow.