Dance academy

Kelley forms lifelong bonds at Westbrook Dance Academy

By By Dean Bibens • 08/19/2021 1:45 PM EST • Last Updated 08/21/2021 7:36 PM

When Mara Kelley started dancing as a child, she had no idea the impact the sport would have on her life. Now 19, dancing has become more than winning competitions for Mara, it’s a way for her to express who she really is.

Mara is a resident of Old Saybrook who recently completed her career with the senior competition team at Westbrook Dance Academy (WDA). A few weeks ago, Mara and her teammates put on stunning performances at the Starpower Talent Nationals at Mohegan Sun.

“There’s something so special and unique about the way you can sit in an audience and feel the emotions of someone on stage that you’ve never met before,” says Mara. “For a while it’s their story, and witnessing that and sharing my own stories has been the greatest thing for me in the past 17 years.”

Beyond expressing herself on stage, Mara has created friendships with her fellow dancers that will last a lifetime. Mara says her time competing for the WDA will always hold a special place in her heart.

“We had some big wins that I will never forget. But honestly, the little moments mean just as much, if not more in some cases, at the end of the day,” says Mara, a graduate of Old Saybrook last year and now a sophomore at Smith College in Massachusetts. “Two things that are close to my heart are when, in 2015, my competition team and I were the great champions of dance [at the Imagine Dance Challenge meet], and when one of my best friends [Kaylene Koelle] and I came first and second at the nationals in 2019.”

Earlier this summer, WDA participated in the Starpower Talent Nationals, and several of its teams emerged from the competition as champions. Mara’s senior competition team earned 5 stars for their three performances at Nationals. Mara also finished second in the 15-19 solo title split and fourth in the 15-19 solo split, scoring 5 stars for her tap solo, “The Goodbye Song”.

“I think this season has gone well for us. It was definitely quite different from what we’re used to, but I was dancing with an amazing group of people that I love so much and overall I I’m really proud of us,” Mara says. “Next year I will no longer be dancing with Westbrook Dance Academy as a student, but I am looking forward to continuing my dance education at Smith College. I’ve already learned a lot from my teachers there, and I’m excited to explore other dance opportunities now that it’s safer to do so.

WDA owner and instructor Julie Reed-Russo describes Mara as the ultimate team player. Reed-Russo says Mara always puts others before herself.

“Mara leads by example through her hard work and dedication. She is always there for the team and for everyone else. The younger dancers in the studio really look up to him,” says Reed-Russo. “So many Westbrook Dance Academy accomplishments are named after Mara. Mara was the first student to start and end with me throughout her degree. It’s bittersweet that she graduated, but it was an incredible honor to watch her grow into a beautiful dancer and an amazing person.

Mara has grown closer to Reed-Russo while competing for the WDA over the past few years. Mara is grateful for everything she learned from Reed-Russo on and off the dance floor.

“My relationship with my dance teacher is something I’ve been trying to put into words since I’ve known her, but I haven’t yet found the word that completely sums it up,” Mara says. “It’s massive and complex. I have no idea who I would be without her. At different times in my life, she has been my best friend, my mentor and my most trusted confidante. She influenced the person I have become in so many ways.

After sitting out the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mara had some reservations about returning to the dance floor this year. Thanks to the proper safety protocols, Mara slowly got back into competition and felt happy to be back with her teammates.

“Sometimes I was absolutely terrified of dancing this year. I was able to be on campus [at Smith] for the spring semester, and I didn’t want to ruin that,” Mara says. “Fortunately, I was very, very careful. We were getting tested three times a week on campus, and I was very eager to wear my mask and practice social distancing. I know my team was also very careful, which made me feel better.