Unsung heroes and heroines is a series where SportsEngine highlights the people that make youth sports happen. These are administrators, volunteers, and coaches whose work is usually done behind the scenes. It's time we give them their moment in the spotlight.
About 30 miles away from all the action in the theme parks of Orlando lies Starbound Performers, a studio that’s doing all it can to produce the next generation of stars. And leading the charge to produce the next generation of stars is their founder and CEO, Jennifer Hawkins.
Hawkins’ dance journey started at the age of two. Her mother needed an outlet for the young Hawkins to get out her energy, so she signed her up for a dance class at their local church. “She threw me in those pink tights and leotard, and off I went,” she remembers. “And that, I instantly fell in love with dance.”
That church dance class led to more training, and soon Hawkins was studying at the Bethesda School of Ballet. That’s where a meeting with one of dance’s biggest stars set her on the path she’s still trailblazing today.
“As a young girl, I had the chance to watch as Mikhail Baryshnikov came to our studio, and I was completely in awe,” she says. “At that moment, I completely fell in love with all things dance.”
“From that point on, people asked me what I wanted to do, and the answer was always the same: I want to teach dance.”
Sparking the star in every child
More than 30 years after that once-in-a-lifetime meeting, Hawkins is still driven by the passion she felt then.
“I hope that spark that ignited in me as a little girl is something I can pass on to all the girls and boys I am lucky enough to work with every day.”
In fact, that meeting with one of dance’s largest stars gives Starbound Performers their motto today: Where every performer is a star. When she talks about this belief, Hawkins starts to light up, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a leader on one of our competition teams or just want to be around your friends and move around—here is a place where you can find your star potential.”
That star mentality really came through in one of Hawkins’ youngest students, a shy preschool girl who would cling to her mom. “For weeks, I had to cradle her into the studio,” Hawkins laughs.
But as soon as mom wasn’t around, something amazing happened. That quiet, shy girl opened up and became a totally different person. “Everyone at that studio absolutely fell in love with her personality and energy,” Hawkins notes.
Unfortunately, about a year later, the young girl had a thyroid issue that caused facial swelling and pain. After several surgeries, Hawkins is happy to report the young dancer is on the road to recovery.
“But through it all, she continued to absolutely explode with energy,” Hawkins beams. “That’s what it means to be a star—she shines on any stage or in any situation.”
Even bright stars need a little help
And when Hawkins says every performer can be a star, she truly means everyone. “When I started this program, I borrowed from the No Child Left Behind mantra from education,” she notes. “I never want a child to miss out on an opportunity for something that’s beyond their control.”
Starbound Performers works with an average of 400 young athletes every week. To ensure she was serving the needs of all the students, Hawkins had to get creative in how she met their needs.
“We have many students who aren’t able to attend an activity unless it’s held at their school or campus,” she notes. “So we brought the classes to them, sending 5-10 coaches a week to teach classes in schools and rec centers throughout central Florida.”
Sometimes meeting those students’ needs requires a little help with tuition and fees. That really hit home when Hawkins was volunteering at the local food bank. “I was looking at the names on the food bags and realized several of these families were my students,” she says. “That really hit home in a powerful way.”
We all want our children’s dreams to come true. And I truly believe parents will do anything it takes to make that happen.
That’s why Hawkins has been so passionate about finding a way to make the finances work–offering discounts and even free classes for those who need them. “I will never let finances be the reason a student does or doesn’t attend our studio,” Hawkins says proudly. “I just want to do my part to help their dreams come true.”
A couple of years ago, there was a hardworking single mom with two daughters. The mom worked hard to ensure the kids didn't go without, but dance can be expensive. “It was an easy decision to give her 50% off her fees at the studio,” Hawkins notes. Even still, it was a hardship for the family.
One day the mom came up to Hawkins with an envelope containing the rest of the cash needed for a big competition. The mom shared that she and her daughters had been praying for a way to come up with the money, and this envelope appeared with the cash.
What the mom, daughter, and even Jennifer at the time didn’t know, was that envelope had been donated by another family at the studio. When that family asked their three young children if they wanted to donate the money from their Christmas presents to help this other family out, all three kids immediately said yes.
“You can’t believe the tears that were shed that day as the story unfolded,” Hawkins says. “What an incredibly beautiful support system we have from our friends and local businesses.”
From passion comes purpose
Anyone who attends one of the Starbound Performers classes or joins one of its teams quickly learns being a member here is about a lot more than dance.
“We work really hard, from day one, to teach these young athletes about more than just dance,” Hawkins notes. “We’re doing so many things in the studio that will serve them later in life.”
Dance can be a physically and mentally taxing sport, with strong demands of its participants. Hawkins leans into that and hopes those lessons help support her students later in life. “So you have a goal? Great! But how are you going to achieve it?” she asks. “We want to hear what our students’ goals are—maybe be the featured dancer, maybe dance in college, maybe just learn a difficult skill—then we’ll work with them to figure out how to make that happen.”
Another life development skill Hawkins and her team focus on is interviewing and personal communication. All her students spend time learning about how to give an interview and better express themselves. “Interpersonal skills are so crucial,” Hawkins says. “We work with all our competition students to better articulate who they are and what they want, so they can let that inner star shine even brighter.”
All this work on personal and emotional development really stands out when they’re performing in the community. “Sometimes we go to these events with hundreds of other community performers,” she says. “And we get so many compliments about how our athletes behave and perform in those settings.”
One especially emotional example happened at a Give Kids the World event, part of the Make a Wish program. Hawkins brought several of her dancers to perform for the critically ill children as part of their visit to Disney World.
“I was just so proud of our athletes, not just for their dancing but how they interacted with the kids and the volunteers,” Hawkins beams. “They were all able to put their passion in dance toward a purpose for good.”
“These students wouldn’t have had that opportunity to shine like the stars they are without dance. I hope they remember it forever. I know I will.”
To learn more about Starbound Performers, visit their website or follow them on Instagram.