As soon as McKenzie Kula was out of diapers, she started taking dance lessons.
"It was a potty-training gift from my parents," she says.
Now 11, McKenzie is serious about dance. She usually practices every day of the week, about 19 hours in all. She goes to competitions. And she wants to teach dance for a living.
"I love dancing," she says. "It's control - making everything look easy instead of showing how hard everything is."
McKenzie is among a group of competitive dancers at Dance Gallery, 4940 Legends Drive, who are preparing for a variety show Sunday at Free State High School, 4700 Overland Drive.
The show is a chance to show off to the public what they've been working on year-round.
But these young dancers - mostly girls, but a handful of boys - say they don't do it to show off. They, like students at Dance City Performing Arts Academy, 5150 Clinton Parkway; the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.; and Lawrence Parks and Recreation, just love to dance.
"It feels really good," says 12-year-old Kate Karnes. "It's nice to know you've accomplished something good."
More than movement
Karen Fender, a former Miss Kansas who has owned Dance Gallery for 26 years, says dance is more than a workout.
"One thing about dance is it affects everything in your life - how you hold yourself, your posture, your poise," she says.
That's part of the reason why Paula Wagner signed up her 9-year-old daughter MaKayla for dance lessons six years ago.
"It's not only physical fitness," Paula Wagner says. "So many people are counting on you, and you count on other people. You work hard. Nothing is handed to you."
She also likes the interaction her daughter gets with other children. Often, she sees the older girls helping with the younger girls' homework.
MaKayla says she either wants to be a dance instructor or a school secretary when she grows up. But her first choice is to be around a dance academy.
"You have this extended family, and you have a fun time with your friends," she says. "It's a lot of hard work to get where you are right now. You have to work to get here."
Interest in various dance styles comes and goes through the years, Fender says. Ballet and jazz have a fairly consistent following. Lyrical dance - a mix of ballet and jazz - is a style that's developed more during the past 15 years.
And Fender says every time a hip-hop dance movie comes out, such as the recent "Stomp the Yard," several new students come in wanting to take hip-hop lessons.
Most of the competitive dancers at Dance Gallery started taking lessons when they were 3 or 4 years old. Fender says that's a good age to start.
"They have flexibility," she says. "If they start at that age, they can retain the flexibility."
McKenzie Kula says she thinks starting early is important.
"I think you should start really young," she says. "If you don't, you miss out on a lot and you might not get as far."
Future in dance
Most of the young dancers, who pay $10 for their first hour of instruction a week and a discounted rate for additional hours, say they want to pursue a career in the field.
"I want to start out as a Broadway star, then go on to be a dance teacher," says 10-year-old Alison Prather.
Fender points to a wall at the studio with photos of former Dance Gallery students who have gone on to dance professionally. One is Paige Peterson, who has been in several films, TV shows and theater productions.
Fender admits being strictly a professional dance is difficult.
"It's hard to break into," she says. "And the dance end doesn't pay as well as modeling."
But that doesn't discourage 11-year-old Emily Arnold, who has been dancing since she was 3. She wants to be on the cheerleading squad or dance team in college.
After that, who knows?
"I think I'll be dancing for a long time," she says.