By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
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By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
“I always wanted to be on TV,” Stone admits. “It's just been one of my goals for the longest time. I minored in drama at UM; I always wanted the spotlight. I see myself as a Katie Couric type. I'd love to be on TV. So with the Hip Hop Kidz, I don't know if I would be the star or if the kids will be the stars, but I think we have something here.”
A lot of people in the child business shouldn't be there. They are in it only for the money or for their own glorification or for what they can get out of it. Suzy is definitely in it because she loves working with kids.
-- Michael Ratigan, Stone's husband
Friday, after school. An aerobics studio inside Zone Fitness in South Miami. Stone leads her top dancers through a grueling workout, humorlessly ensuring that each of the preternaturally cheerful kids in front of her moves his or her feet, arms, and legs in exact harmony with the collective. She does not smile as she glances from one dancer to the next. She is focused. This is work. There is a show coming up next weekend, Footy's Wing Ding, a charity concert sponsored by Y-100 (WHYI-FM). “This is the second year in a row we're going to be performing at the Wing Ding. It's an honor to be chosen again,” she notes. There is only one week left to get the show just right.
Her all-star youth team, the Production Company, is on the floor, twenty young girls and boys working through elaborately choreographed dance steps. In rehearsal they wear tank tops and baggy shorts. A song by Will Smith loops over the studio speakers. “Big big bump bump,” Stone barks -- and her students know what she means. “1234 ... 5678 and boom!” She is in total control.
Stone sports nylon sweatpants and a snug Gap T-shirt. When she first broke on to the Miami aerobics scene twenty years ago, she was famous for her rock-solid physique. Motherhood has softened her frame and filled out her face. Like many professional dancers, she asks that her age not be revealed. (She asks a half-dozen times, in fact.) When the kids inquire, she tells them she's 21 years old.
“Excuse me!” she shouts. “I'm in the middle.... Kick in front of me.... You guys always go back to the center.... Hey! Everyone.... Kick it out!”
It takes a lot of work to be in this elite group, here on this floor. Dancers start out in Hip Hop I, an entry-level class. If they show aptitude, they might rise a level to Hip Hop II. If they are extremely skilled, Suzy might personally pluck them from the class and place them in the Performance Troupe, 30 or so youngsters who dance in the Orange Bowl Parade and such. The select few -- those practicing today -- are members of the Production Company. These dedicated dancers perform the smaller, generally choicer gigs, from spots on the Jenny Jones show in Chicago to dancing at a private party in Miami to celebrate Madonna's birthday. This is the group to be in.
To retain Production Company membership, it is not enough to be talented, outgoing, and expressive. You also must be on time for practices. Attendance, of course, is mandatory. At this highest level, there must be a commitment from parents, who often have to schedule family vacations around performances and pay airfare and lodging to most of the national appearances.
“I push them,” Stone say. “And because I do, I'm not going to win a popularity contest. Parents have to realize and the kids have to realize that to be the best, you have to pay your dues. You can't be in the top level unless you are willing to work hard. It's the entertainment business.
One little girl who didn't make it into the top group cried at a performance. I said, “Don't cry. You're here. You're doing great. So you can't be in that one part. You're here; be professional. You're a little professional.' And a parent might get mad at me for saying it, but that's the truth.”
The sacrifices beget rewards. Not only are the kids allowed to perform for a national audience, they also get opportunities to dance in commercials or music videos. Many of the kids in the Production Company have cashed in. Nine-year-old Tommy danced in a commercial for Kmart, taking home a $6000 paycheck. Young hip-hoppers Mel, Sport, and Matthew danced with Sammie Bush, the soulful young Miamian who filmed his first video in Bayfront Park. Stone's office is littered with headshots of her dancers.
“Casting directors call us directly,” Stone says. “They tell me they are so tired of seeing beautiful kids who can't dance. We train our kids to be in front of the camera. We have budding stars in the troupe. I would love to see some of our kids launch their musical careers. Four or five of them in here have what it takes to be signed by the time they are fourteen or fifteen years old.”