Words by Su Ertekin-Taner
“I just remember having tears in my eyes watching The Rockettes. I was like, I need to be them. How can I do this?” said Ella Wehner, a 19-year old native of Fleming Island and a dancer. Wehner’s New York trip with her dance studio in eighth grade was the root of her years-long Rockette fantasy. Just four years later, the dancer took a step toward her dream by auditioning for the Rockettes 17 days after her 18th birthday. While she wasn’t recruited for the prestigious cast, Wehner plans to audition annually.
But Wehner’s passion for dance won’t end and certainly didn’t start with the Rockettes. In fact, she’s been dancing since she was 2. She carried out her her childhood training in her parents’ dance studio, Wehner’s School of Arts (WSOTA), inspired by her dancer cousin, and now attends Jacksonville University.
The dancer’s training gradually went global. Wehner attributes some of her current passion and ability for dance to myriad dance mentors. “My philosophy is that every single dance teacher that I take from whether it’s for years at my studio or just like a convention class or I see them once a year — I try to take something from everyone because I feel like that’s what helps … all these people make me who I am today,” Wehner said.
Her first dance teacher, Ashley McNair, molded Wehner’s devotion to dance. From there she found inspiration and guidance wherever she could, studying with “So You Think You Can Dance” alumni Kathryn McCormick and Carlos Garland, her current trainer and former Rockette Rhonda Malkin and Ariana Grande’s choreographer Brian Nicholson. Currently, she attends Jacksonville University where she has taken master classes from renowned international dancers. Through bite-sized lessons from around the world, Wehner whittled herself into an adept performance and competition dancer specializing in contemporary and jazz.
And thus the fantasy became less fantastical day by day — although some were more difficult than others.
While Wehner rejected the overly dramatized portrayal of competition dance in Lifetime’s series “Dance Moms,” she did mention a pessimistic mentality associated with this dance sphere.
A seemingly perpetual negativity attempted to eclipse Wehner’s shine since third grade. Competing dance studios used intimidation tactics against Wehner, while her own studio’s dancers and parents hoped to discount her wins because her parents owned the dance studio.
“Sometimes you only focus on the negativity you get from people, and when you’re given a big task, a big dance to accomplish, you just beat yourself up about it because you’re like, there’s all these people watching me, and you just feel like all of them want you to fail,” Wehner said. “And I’ve had times, many times, where I just have gotten that feeling where I feel like everybody’s watching me, and they don’t want me to book this audition. They don’t want me to finish this dance and make it good. They don’t want me to win, you know?”
But the surrounding negativity stayed that way — that is, on the outskirts of her thoughts. Hatred never won for Wehner. “I’m going to do everything for myself and I’m never going to do anything out of hate because that’s when the worst happens is when you start focusing on other things and other people,” she said. “You just really have to realize I’m doing this because I love it and nobody has the power to make you feel any less than you are.”
Wehner’s competition days now inspire much of her self-proclaimed discipline of steel and tenacity. With all her wealth of knowledge and determination, the dancer has chasséd (small moving step), jetéd (leap), and pas de bourréed (three step movement) into accomplishments of her own. Wehner auditioned for and danced during the Rockettes Summer Intensive before her freshman year of high school, received a scholarship to attend the Joffrey Ballet Musical Theatre and Ballet Contemporary Summer Program, as well as a merit scholarship for Joffrey Ballet School’s Trainee Program, completed many successful competition seasons, and most recently earned a dance scholarship to attend JU.
Yet, these prestigious achievements are upstaged by what the dancer perceives to be her biggest dance accomplishment: “I just feel like there’s something to be said for somebody who grows up at a studio their entire life and then gets to move on from that studio and still gets to do what they love in college. I feel like my biggest accomplishment would be being able to get into college, get a scholarship for dance, and get to do what I love everyday.”
And so she does, dance everyday that is. While the dancer trains at least four hours a day everyday, she is also currently exploring a new budding artistic passion: choreographing, specifically for her parents’ dance studio. With the help of WSOTA dance instructor Lauren Sundberg, Wehner has learned to teach and choreograph competition dances.
In her most recent endeavor, Wehner choreographed a contemporary dance and jazz dance for the teen (14-18) competition team. “I think [another] accomplishment would honestly be my parents and the other teachers at the studio trusting me to choreograph for the kids and put these really big production numbers on stage. That’s what means the most to me, I think. It’s just– I love that I get to give back to my studio and also give back what I learn outside of the studio,” Wehner said.
Now, Wehner has set her sights outside of the studio, training with her idol, Rhonda Malkin, in New York over the summer (and winter) and planning to partake in another year of college packed with dance–both classes and extracurricular performances for the JU Sirens.
Wehner will carry her technical and emotional robustness into these endeavors, remembering to dance with intention for every performance. “I have grown to be someone who dances, actually, from the heart. I know that sounds so cheesy. Everything I do now, I try to pour my whole self into. It’s not just like ‘oh I’m given this choreography, I’ll do this on stage.’”
With every era of dance, every dance mentor, Wehner works toward her Rockette dreams and, more importantly, discovers new pockets of herself. So, the future that the dancer is presently cultivating is bright, as bright as this star that the professional dance community will soon welcome into their midst.