Stars are born just off Hwy. 36 in Maplewood, home of Minnesota’s legendary Larkin Dance Studio.
The 67-year-old school has launched four generations of movers on Broadway and in Hollywood. But the school’s profile was especially high this summer, thanks to student Eva Igo, 14, who narrowly missed winning a $1 million prize on NBC’s “World of Dance.” Meanwhile, a Larkin alum named Taylor Sieve, 19, has been competing on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”
In addition to these TV stars, the school has prepared young hopefuls for “America’s Got Talent.” Other alumni dance competitively (and often win) in contests in Minnesota and beyond. And still others become members of the national champion University of Minnesota dance team. In fact, the Larkin style — so virtuosic, so precise — has become familiar enough that choreographers nationwide can recognize it on sight.
So what’s the school’s secret? “Shirley Larkin,” said longtime teacher Ilia Gorev, a former principal dancer with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.
Shirley founded the school in 1950 at age 15. According to daughter Michele Larkin-Wagner, Shirley was such a good dancer that neighborhood parents asked her to teach their children. She started giving lessons in the basement of Francois’, her parents’ bowling alley and supper club in Mahtomedi. As she grew older, mothering six children of her own, Shirley kept on teaching.
“She had us working all the time,” remembered daughter Molly Larkin-Symanietz, who now runs the bustling school with Larkin-Wagner. “Teaching, doing stuff around the studio, helping with costumes — I got my mother’s good work ethic.”
The family relocated the school to Maplewood in 1976. After three decades at the Plaza 3000 mall, Larkin moved in 2014 to its location on Hwy. 36, which boasts nine studios, a retail store, even a deli and sewing shop. More than 800 students are enrolled there in ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary and hip-hop dance classes. Sadly, Shirley, who died in 2011 at age 77, did not live to see this milestone.
The Larkin way
Each new generation has worked to sustain Shirley’s vision. “More than anything I think about the impact my grandma made in Minnesota,” said Mackenzie Symanietz, who teaches Larkin students alongside her mother and aunts. “I’m proud to follow in their footsteps.”
“My mom always said, ‘Praise his name with dance’ — that was in every advertisement,” said Larkin-Wagner, recalling Shirley’s strong Christian values and faith. “So we teach dedication, how to be a good team player, how to be kind to one another.”
Cirque du Soleil dancer Reed Kelly, whose Broadway credits include “Wicked” and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” came to Larkin in 1995 after suffering a concussion while playing hockey at age 13. He remembered Shirley as a tough and tender matriarch who preached “the Larkin way.”
“It’s about striving to be your best self and doing anything you choose to do with integrity and grace,” Kelly said. “She instilled that in her family, and it trickled down.”
Alumnus Linda Larkin (no relation — she assumed the name for the stage with Shirley’s blessing) is best known as the voice of Princess Jasmine in Disney’s “Aladdin.” The studio was her getaway during the 1970s.
“It was a block from my house and Shirley could not get rid of me,” she said. “She would put me to work cleaning the mirrors.”
The actor also absorbed the foundations of ballet, tap and jazz. By the time she left Minnesota for New York City, she felt well prepared for show business, drawing upon her Larkin training to keep calm during auditions and other high-stress situations. “There’s a lot of discouragement along the way, but dancers are strong. I would do well and get jobs. I felt very qualified to be in that field of talent.”
Sieve, too, said her Larkin training prepared her for the pressures of “So You Think You Can Dance.” She specifically credits the school’s lessons on versatility and strong technique.
“I can pick up choreography fast,” Sieve said. “Going into the live episodes, for the duets, we only had five or six hours to perfect the dancing. And then we’d go into camera blocking and dress rehearsal.”
Larkin boasts a robust national network of former students, with the sisters keeping a busy schedule of attending alumni performances on the coasts. And yet some of the school’s brightest stars return to teach at the school.
Peyton Wight Brunstad, for example, started at Larkin when she was 2 and went on to join the Vikings cheerleaders, eventually becoming squad captain and representing Minnesota at the 2012 Pro Bowl. Now she assists classes at Larkin, where her toddler daughter is enrolled.
Former student Ricci Milan, 37, a member of the touring supergroup Rhythmic Circus, teaches tap at the school.
“One of Michele’s greatest strengths is discipline,” said Milan, noting the studio’s unique commitment to training young men. “It takes a thick-skinned teacher to reel in 13- and 14-year-old boys.” (Larkin-Wagner estimates that approximately 50 boys are enrolled.)
For elite dancers such as Brunstad and Milan, Larkin was more than a school; it was a refuge.
“A lot of kids see it as a second home,” said Trudy Schranck, a Larkin parent who also worked as the studio’s office manager for many years. “Here they learn to listen and give respect. They learn in a really healthy environment how to cope.”
“I can’t imagine my life without Larkin,” Cirque du Soleil dancer Kelly said. “The teachers expect the best and know how to get it out of you. And pretty soon you start expecting it from yourself.”
All-star alumni of Larkin Studio
Eva Igo spent the summer wowing the three-judge panel of Ne-Yo, Jennifer Lopez and Derek Hough on NBC’s “World of Dance.” The teen just missed winning the $1 million prize but earned thousands of fans. This fall she'll be part of a “World of Dance Live” tour that comes to the State Theatre in Minneapolis on Oct. 26.
Taylor Sieve competed on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” this summer. She also earned the title of senior best dancer at the 2016 Dance Awards in Las Vegas.
Linda Larkin went from dancing to acting and found her biggest role as Princess Jasmine in the Disney animated film “Aladdin.” She will return as Jasmine in 2018’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2.”
Brooke Engen appeared in the 2007 film version of “Hairspray.” Her television credits include “Oh My Country” and “Hart of Dixie.”
Tiffany Engen, Brooke’s twin sister, has appeared in Broadway and touring productions including “Kinky Boots” and “Legally Blonde.” She also performed in “Hairspray.”
Quisha Freeman, granddaughter of the studio's founder, Shirley Larkin, and daughter of Patty Larkin Freeman, performed in or toured with such Broadway productions of “Fame” and Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida.” She teaches at the Harlem School of the Arts and National Dance Institute.
Dare Kujawa competed on “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2012, making it into the final 20. He's now performing in Las Vegas in Cirque du Soleil's “Michael Jackson One” and also was a Cirque cast member for “The Beatles Love” and “Mystere.”
Reed Kelly, an actor and model, has appeared in four Broadway shows: “Wicked,” “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark,” “Addams Family” and Cirque du Soleil’s “Paramour.” He was also a castaway on CBS’ “Survivor: San Juan Del Sur – Blood vs. Water 2.”
Ricci Milan is a member of Twin Cities percussive dance troupe Rhythmic Circus. The company has toured extensively and earned the prestigious Spirit of the Fringe Award from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival.
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.