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Encore Dancers Heading to China

Just a year ago, the girls of Encore Theatrical Arts Project in Chantilly were looking forward to dancing in an international festival in China. Then came Sept. 11 and the trip was canceled.

But the group got a second chance when it was again invited to perform in the Beijing International Cultural Tourism Festival. Aimed at promoting cultural diversity and world harmony, the event runs from Sept. 21-25, and Encore will be there representing the U.S.

"We are so excited," said Raynor van der Merwe, Encore's director and choreographer. "I thought we'd just missed our chance, so I'm very grateful. Everybody is really prepared and looking forward to the whole experience."

Encore's 21 dancers, ages 11-20, will be accompanied by 28 chaperones and will be among performers from 40 countries. They'll be on stage for 30 minutes, showcasing American music and dancing styles.

Titled "Broadway to Beijing," their show will feature five Broadway-style songs, including "Victor, Victoria;" "Rich Kids,' a Charleston number; two tap routines, "Left Hand, Right Hand" and "New Orleans;" and their grand finale, "Dancing Fool," a swing number from the show, "Copacabana."

"We started rehearsing, the beginning of summer," said van der Merwe. "I tried to pick things that would give the flavor of American musical theater and American music."

The group left for China on Wednesday; but at a dress rehearsal last Friday, the girls bubbled over with enthusiasm about their big adventure. One of them was Paige Williams, 15, a Centreville High sophomore.

"You hear about lots of kids getting to go to far-off places because of their parents in the military or something," she said. "But we're going to China because of us, so it gives us a feeling of pride. And our parents, teachers and friends are proud of us, too."

Paige said the dancers all feel "very lucky to get a second chance to go — someone out there is saying we're good enough to be asked twice."

Michelle Mogollon, 12, a Stone Middle seventh-grader, said she's always wanted to see the Great Wall of China — and now she will. Her favorite number in the show is "New Orleans" because she enjoys tap and "this song just makes me want to dance."

Beth Seger, 13, a Stone eighth-grader, likes "Dancing Fool" the best. "It looks so cool on stage because everyone's dressed the same — in hot-pink-and-purple halter tops and pink-and-black skirts," she said. "And the choreography's really nice."

She planned to do homework on the 22-hour flight which went from Dulles Airport to Detroit to Tokyo and then to Beijing. And she and dancer Chelsea Overholt, 12, will both shop for souvenirs. Said Beth: "All my friends are asking for T-shirts, keychains and stuff from the Hard Rock Cafe there."

Westfield High senior Courtney Reed, 17, a Cappie nominee in her school's musical, "Godspell," was also thrilled about the China trip. "It was so disappointing when we didn't get to go last year," she said. "I'm looking forward to seeing the Great Wall and the Ming tombs. We learned so much about them in history that it'll really be exciting to see them. I have to do reports for my teachers and talk to the class when I get back."

Her favorite number is "Victor, Victoria" in which the dancers wear black suits. When they face front, the girls' faces show; but when they turn around, the backs of their heads sport masks of men's faces. Said Reed: "It's the most musical-theater type piece, and the audience will enjoy it because it's so different and unusual."

Kelsey Carroll, 13, of Stone Middle, loves being in Encore. "My dream, when I grow up, is to be on Broadway, and this gives me a taste of that," she explained. "And Raynor is awesome — she's so supportive and really believes in us. And all the girls are best friends and are there for each other — we're family."

Carrie Williams, 14, a Centreville High freshman, is in her first year with Encore, but she's danced since age 4 and hopes to someday sing professionally in musical theatre. She says van der Merwe is like a second mother to the girls, is always honest with them and is a terrific dancer. As for herself, Williams loves dancing because "when I've had a bad day, I can just come to dance class and leave my problems at the door."

Dressed as a flapper, in a lime-green dress with pearls and white-lace gloves, Abbey Hurlbert, 12 1/2, prepared to dance to "Rich Kids Rag." She likes Encore's Broadway music and says the program offers a more challenging level of dance than she's found elsewhere: "If you want to go into professional dancing, this is where you want to be."

"Everyone works together — we're a great team," added Mallory Sofastaii, 12, a Rocky Run seventh-grader. She said Chinese audience members, hearing American voices, "might not understand [the words of their songs], but they can still enjoy the rhythm."