Three dancers tapped for intensive program in D.C.

Sheri Gourd | Daily Press

Dance instructor and studio owner Lena Gladkova-Huffman, left, assists dancers who were selected to attend the Kirov Academy of Ballet Summer Intensive Program in Washington, D.C. They are, from left: Kassandra Mankiller, Reece Cowart, and Lacy Ullrich.

Three Tahlequah dancers have been accepted into the five-week Kirov Academy of Ballet Summer Intensive Program in Washington, D.C.

Regular dancers with Encore Performing Society – Reece Cowart, Kassandra Mankiller, and Lacy Ullrich, who are all Cherokee – auditioned virtually from the Academy of Performing Arts studio this past winter.

“This is a tremendous and unique opportunity for these young ladies,” said Lena Gladkova-Huffman, dance instructor and studio owner.

Those attending will take classes six days a week in mainly ballet, but also modern character, and jazz styles. They will have rehearsals for the production they will perform at the close of the program. The cost of the program is $8,000 per dancer, and that includes tuition, room and board.

Gladkova-Huffman said she encourages students every year to apply for different programs. She tries to recommend ones she knows are good and with which the dancers will be comfortable. Kirov Academy teaches the same type of ballet she does.

“I want them to know there’s a huge world out there. I want them to know how much they are worth, and because they have what it takes,” she said. “Someone believed in me when I was younger.”

People often hear of athletes getting scholarships or being recruited, and Gladkova-Huffman said dancers can often be overlooked.

“Nobody knows how big of scope there is of a need for talented dancers. Companies are looking for different types of dancers, ones with different heritages. There are so many more accepted body types and looks now,” she said.

Lacy is a 16-year-old home-schooler who has been dancing for 12 years. Her favorites styles are ballet and contemporary.

“Dance is a wonderful and freeing experience. You kind of get out of your head for a while and can forget about what’s going on that day,” said Lacy.

She auditioned for Kirov Academy when she was 12, and thinks the audition this time was fun.

“I always thought it’d be a cool experience and I want to learn from a different teacher,” said Lacy.

Although she was accepted to the program, she decided not to go this year.

“I didn’t know if I was ready for that new of an experience,” she said. “This year was more a ‘can I get in?’ and a maybe.”

To go in the future, she would have to audition again.

An eighth-grader at Shiloh Christian School, Reece, 14, began dancing when she was 3. She said she got hardcore about it when she was 8, and her favorite styles are modern and hip-hop. The people and dance environment are what keep her going.

“I’ve been dancing so long, it feels like a calling,” she said. “I am looking forward to going and to learn from different teachers and hopefully improve.”

Reece has attended other summer intensive programs, but not one this far away, or for that length of time. The ones in Tulsa she attended during the day, and the two-week intensive at the University of Oklahoma was for two weeks.

“My mom was always with me. She will be coming to visit me in D.C.,” said Reece. “My family was really proud of me and is super-supportive.”

She advises dancers considering additional training programs to go for it.

“It helps with physical ability and you get in a good mental mind set so you can express yourself,” said Reece.

Kassandra is a 17-year-old junior at Sequoyah High School. She has been dancing for about six years and enjoys ballet.

“I like the feeling of freedom. My mind is usually very clear when I dance,” she said. “I enjoy the feeling of movement.”

This was her first time to audition for the program. At first, she wasn’t planning on going because of the pandemic, but she was encouraged by her dance instructor.

“It’s a very high-quality training I get to experience,” said Kassandra. “I look forward to training with other dancers and being taught by other teachers.”

She suggests dancers who want to better themselves and who are looking for a better quality of training to seek out intensive trainings.

Since she's the first dancer in her family, Kassandra said they are very excited for her. Her parents own The Fry Bread Factory and they have been holding fundraisers to help cover tuition.

“I’ve had a lot of help from the community and I really appreciate it,” said Kassandra. “We’ve almost reached our goal.”

An Indian taco and wild onion dinner fundraiser is set for Saturday, March 27, 2-6 p.m., at 16315 N. Highway 10. Encore has set up a Go Fund Me campaign called “Dancing to DC: Cherokee Ballerinas Continue Ancestors Legacy in DC.” Gladkova-Huffman has also reached out for support from people she knows in the dance world.

“People I know are excited girls from a rural community are getting recognized nationally,” she said.

Gladkova-Huffman said the girls will have fun, but that’s not the reason they are attending.

“It’s going to be a lot of hard work,” she said.

Get involved

Youth who are curious about what a summer intensive program may be like are invited to sign up for one locally. Gladkova-Huffman will host two this June: one for those with dance experience, and one for those who have little to no experience. To learn more, visit or contact Gladkova-Huffman at 918-803-1408.

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