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CT dance studio takes top honors at national championship

Coaches and co-owners Elizabeth Sanderson (right) and Christine Sessa (left) at the Morlock School of Dance in East Hartford.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Coaches and co-owners Elizabeth Sanderson (right) and Christine Sessa (left) at the Morlock School of Dance in East Hartford.

From humble beginnings to becoming a powerhouse in the dance world, an East Hartford dance studio is spinning with joy after winning a national championship.

Elizabeth Sanderson and Christine Sessa's, owners of Morlock School of Dance, have danced their way to national recognition, clinching the top award for modern dance at theElite Performance Challenge Nationals at Foxwoods.

“Our senior team, aged 14 to 17, delivered a breathtaking modern piece about dementia,” said Sessa, the choreographer behind the winning routine. “Winning the award at nationals was very exciting for us. This is the first time that our team has won. The children came so far; they were so proud of themselves.”

Hard work and dedication marked the senior team’s journey to the top. Competing in regional competitions throughout the year, their victory at Nationals was the culmination of countless hours of practice and passion. Sanderson, who co-owns the studio, reflected on the win's significance.

“We’ve been owning it together for 19 years, and this achievement is a testament to the talent and commitment of our students,” she said. “Our studio has always been a melting pot of different cultures; this diversity is one of our greatest strengths.”

Dancers celebrate diversity

Among the shining stars of the studio are Ashley Santaya and Isabella Galarza, two dancers who have been part of this transformative journey. Santaya, 14, of Peruvian heritage from East Hartford, has been dancing at the studio since she was 6 years old.

Ashley Santaya, 14, looks around the studio as she and other students at the Morlock School of Dance prepare to perform the modern dance piece that recently brought them a national award.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Ashley Santaya, 14, looks around the studio as she and other students at the Morlock School of Dance prepare to perform the modern dance piece that recently brought them a national award.

"I've been dancing here most of my life, taking classes from Mondays to Thursdays. What I enjoy the most is performing with my team and the friendship we share," Santaya said.

Santaya takes pride in representing her heritage. Reflecting on the national championship, she described it as an emotional and rewarding experience.

"We worked really hard all year,” she said. “Winning the grand championship was an incredible opportunity."

Isabella Galarza, who started her dance journey in Puerto Rico before continuing in Connecticut, shares a similar passion.

"I began ballet classes at 2 years old and transitioned to other styles like hip hop and jazz over the years,” Galarza said. “It's about sticking to what you love and overcoming challenges."

Proud of her Puerto Rican heritage, Isabella enjoys representing her culture.

“My grandma was a salsa dancer, so she definitely did teach me some stuff," she said.

Her participation in the national championship was deeply meaningful.

“I've learned a lot of discipline because it's on a tight schedule here, so I feel very good that I can be a part of something so big and show that we can do it, too,” Galarza said,

As the two dancers look to the future, they carry the lessons and experiences gained at the studio. Santaya plans to move to New York City to pursue a college degree in contemporary dance and possibly open her own studio. Galarza aspires to balance her love for dance with a career in nursing.

Room to grow

Coaches and co-owners Elizabeth Sanderson (left) and Christine Sessa (center, standing) speak with their students at the Morlock School of Dance as they prepare to perform the modern dance piece that recently brought them a national award.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Coaches and co-owners Elizabeth Sanderson (left) and Christine Sessa (center, standing) speak with their students at the Morlock School of Dance as they prepare to perform the modern dance piece that recently brought them a national award.

The studio, which offers a wide range of dance styles, including jazz, tap, ballet, modern, contemporary, acro, gymnastics, and hip hop, caters to students ages 3 to 18. Their inclusive approach has attracted a diverse student base, creating a vibrant and supportive community.

In 2006, Sanderson and Sessa took over from the original owner, Mary, who retired due to an injury. At that time, the studio had about 90 students.

"Mary had run the studio for many years, and it was an honor to take over from her and build on her legacy," said Sanderson.

Their student base has grown from 90 to over 230, allowing them to expand their space to include four dance rooms.

"We're fortunate to have such a wonderful community that supports us," Sanderson said.

The award-winning routine was a technical masterpiece and a deeply personal and emotional performance.

“Seeing the kids perform it on stage, with some of the judges and audience members in tears, was unforgettable,” Sessa said.

Students at the Morlock School of Dance perform the modern dance piece that recently brought them a national award.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Students at the Morlock School of Dance perform the modern dance piece that recently brought them a national award.

As the studio basks in the glory of their national championship, Sanderson and Sessa are already looking ahead to the future. They plan to continue expanding their community engagement and offering diverse classes that reflect the cultural richness of their student body.

“We want to remain a welcoming place for everyone, like a second family,” Sanderson said. “Even as we grow, we’re committed to maintaining our close-knit, family-oriented atmosphere.”

Sessa added, “Dance has no language barrier. It brings people together regardless of their background, and this national recognition proves what we can achieve when we come together.”

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.

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