Many kids who take dance classes dream of appearing on stage, screen and television, but very few of them actually go on to stardom. Which is why it’s such a surprise to learn that there’s a dance studio in Ashburn (not New York, not Los Angeles, not even DC), that keeps a running list of television shows, prestigious ballet companies and Broadway shows its young students have performed on.
You may have caught Studio Bleu’s students on TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, World of Dance or The Ellen Degeneres Show. Or seen them high kicking with the Radio City Rockettes or singing their hearts out on stage in Newsies. Or leaping and pirouetting with a dance company such as the Nashville Ballet, American Ballet Theatre or Ballet West.
And it’s all under the direction of studio owner and former dancer Kimberly Rishi, who has been running Studio Bleu since she took the reins 14 years ago.
“My main goal is to grow each student,” says Rishi, who moved to McLean from Easton, Pennsylvania, during her freshman year of high school.
While parents and students at Studio Bleu in Ashburn are often focused on winning the next dance competition or auditioning for a spot in a Broadway show, Rishi says she’s focused on teaching skills her students will use throughout their lifetime—goal setting, time management and stress management.
Rishi says she believes it’s that focus that makes her studio and students stand out. Rishi sees Studio Bleu as a training facility for life. “The students learn how to work hard every day and how to be kind people,” Rishi says. “That’s what makes Studio Bleu unique.”
Never mind that Studio Bleu has one of the largest and most successful dance competition teams in the country with nearly 400 kids competing in five regional and one national competition each year. Rishi estimates Studio Bleu’s teams win or place in about 90% of the competitions, but she doesn’t like to focus on that. “I like to teach the kids to be humble,” she says.
“We have hardworking kids,” says Tina Smothers, the studio’s vocal and theater director. “The type of people Kim attracts are hardworking teachers who will inspire students to work hard and excel at what they do.” Studio Bleu is more focused on training and technique than most competition groups, Smothers says.
That focus isn’t surprising when you consider Rishi’s background in human resources management. Before taking over Studio Bleu, Rishi was a vice president of human resources at the software firm Vastera in Dulles. The original owner, Aranetta Marie Manley, knew Rishi from when she was a student at George Mason University studying dance. Rishi taught at the studio, which was then called Academy of Dance and Movement, while she earned her bachelor’s degree in dance.
After Rishi left GMU, she earned a master’s in business administration from Marymount University with a concentration in human resource management. Although she was working full time, Rishi continued to offer private lessons to a few students at the studio each month.
When Manley’s husband became ill, she asked Rishi to take over the studio. Rishi hesitated but Manley insisted she’d be perfect for the job because she had degrees in both dance and business. Rishi promised to do it for one year. That year soon turned into 14 and Rishi has since grown the studio substantially. (Aranetta Marie Manley recently passed away in January.)
When Rishi took it over, there were 80 students taking lessons with 22 students on the competition team. Now there are 385 students on the competition team and close to 2,500 students attend classes each week with 56 teachers. The studio has 12 rooms, including 11 for dance, and one vocal/piano lab. Classes are available for children ages 18 months to adult, and competition team members range in age from 2.5 to 19 years.
Rishi no longer teaches at the studio. Instead, she manages the day-to-day operations, marketing the studio, mentoring the staff and helping her students set goals, whether they come to Studio Bleu for a fun, one-hour class or to participate on a competition team. At the beginning of each season, Rishi asks each student to fill out a goal-setting sheet with their three main goals for the season and what they will do on a weekly basis to help themselves achieve those goals.
Marissa Stark, 20, recalls those goal sheets from when she danced on Studio Bleu’s competition team from age 11 to 17. She admits that, when she was younger, those goals sheets didn’t have much impact on her. But once she turned 13 and knew that she wanted to pursue a career as a professional ballet dancer, those goal sheets became increasingly important.
“It forced me to think about how I wanted to better myself,” says Stark, who is in her second year as a professional dancer with the Nashville Ballet. “The coolest part was Kim would sit down with us and really talk through it. If a goal seemed like a push, she would say, ‘Nothing is impossible. You’re able to do whatever you want to do. Let’s figure out how to get there.’” To this day, Stark calls Rishi when she needs support. “It’s never a freakout moment,” she says. Instead, Stark will sit down, re-create a list and figure out how to get to her goal.
For Rishi, those goals don’t need to be dance focused. “I’m proud of my students, whatever their successes are,” she says. “I am just as proud of the kid who won the cake-baking contest or the kid who won the football championship.”
It’s not unusual for the boys on the competition teams to play a sport, including football, golf and baseball. “They learn how to manage their time,” Rishi says. “They go to school, they do their sport and they come here.” Recently, one of her students who is a high school football player was introduced with his team during the school pep rally and then quickly changed out of his jersey and came back out on stage to perform with his hip-hop group, Rishi says. “I was very proud of him,” she adds.
“My main goal is to grow each student,” says Rishi, who doesn’t shy away from telling the dance competition students that, if they want to fast track their growth, they will need to work hard. Dance-competition students get homework, they are videotaped so they can watch themselves and practice their steps, and for the ballet students, there is a big emphasis on ballet technique.
Studio Bleu has a partnership with The Art of Technique headed by Troy Brown, who attended the School of American Ballet in New York City. He has performed with the Chicago City Ballet, both the Baltimore and Washington operas and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Working with someone like Brown is an essential component of ballet training, if you want to dance professionally, Stark says. “I was able to get one-on-one ballet training that allowed me to focus on what I wanted to pursue professionally,” she says. “It also allowed me to be very sure that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Studio Bleu opened doors for Stark, who auditioned for the Washington School Ballet and then spent two years dancing for them before joining the Nashville Ballet. “It was through connections that Kim had and her willingness to always help her dancers,” Stark says.
The same could be said about Rishi’s support of her theater and vocal students. “Kim encourages people to audition,” Smothers says. “We live in an area where there are lots of opportunities if kids are willing to take it.”
Smothers isn’t just a teacher at the Studio Bleu. Her 10-year-old son, Josiah, has been a student there for five years. “JoJo wanted to dance because he wants to be famous,” she says. Initially, he enrolled in Studio Bleu because it was the closest studio to their house when they moved to Virginia from Florida.
Smothers was a vocal coach before moving to Virginia and when Rishi met her, she convinced Smothers to teach just five lessons a week. Now Smothers teaches six days a week and has 74 regular students with 15 students on the drop-in list. “There is something different about Kim,” Smothers says. “For me, it never feels like work. I love what I do.”
Her son, JoJo, also clearly loves what he does. He has performed in Newsies at Arena Stage in DC and was in the national touring group for Finding Neverland. This year, he will do all 22 dances in Studio Bleu’s six competitions, dancing solos, duets and with the group in every style of dance from ballet to hip-hop and tap. Like many of the Studio Bleu students, JoJo is home-schooled. “A good chunk [of the kids] are home-schooled and a good chunk go to public schools,” Smothers says, adding there is a tutoring group at the studio (though currently suspended because of COVID).
Rishi and Smothers have brought some real star power from Broadway to teach the students a master class at Studio Bleu, including Lion King star Jelani Remy, Mamie Parris from School of Rock and Daniel J. Maldonado, who starred in Newsies at Arena Stage. “It’s important for the students to develop these relationships and learn from people who are doing the things that they want to do,” Smothers says. It gives the students an opportunity to ask professional actors what they did in high school, whether they danced, sang or acted, she says. “It helps them to figure out what they need to do now if they want to do this in the future.”
Studio Bleu holds auditions each year in April for its dance teams and each May for its vocal group. The teams are grouped by age, skill level and dance discipline. Most of the competition-team students practice twice a week, Rishi says, but some come six or seven days a week. “Some kids outgrow us and move on,” she adds.
Despite the competition, Rishi creates an environment where the students, parents and teachers are supportive of each other, Smothers says. “Every kid wants to win but at the same time she is so focused on it being a family,” she says.
Rishi receives about 300 texts a day from parents and she responds to all of them the same day, whether it’s a question about the schedule, costumes or anything else. Like most HR professionals, Rishi believes in keeping the lines of communication open, so she sends multiple emails to parents each week.
Although the bulk of the students don’t come to the studio until 3 p.m. on weekdays, Rishi usually gets there around 9 a.m. so she can focus on administrative tasks before the students and their parents arrive. She is typically at the studio seven days a week for about 15 hours a day. A Franklin Planner, so stuffed with Post-it notes and the At-a-Glance pages from the last four years that she can’t close the book, is her main organizational tool. “I like to write things down,” she says. “It helps me to be on track and to be ahead.”
For fun, she likes to read books about leadership. “I don’t watch dance shows,” she says.
About 40% of the students come from an hour to three hours away, from other parts of Virginia, Maryland and DC. “You could copy our program but that doesn’t mean you’re us or how we are with the kids or each other,” Rishi says.
Many of the kids will tell Rishi after graduating from the studio that she helped shape them as a person.
“Yes, it’s a dance studio and for dancers, but Kim is also training humans to be humans,” Stark says. “The lessons she teaches you indirectly or directly, like how to improvise in difficult situations, and the human lessons she imparts on you through dance and the vessel of a dance studio are so valuable.”
Rishi proudly recounts the story of a student who went to work at a top accounting firm. After her first few weeks on the job, the student’s boss asked who trained her. The student humbly said, “Everyone here has helped me.” Her manager asked, “No, who trained you before you came to work here?” Rishi’s former student said, “My dance studio director.”
Those are the moments Rishi lives for.