Daniela Chavarriaga steps in time with Amanda Gottardi, a 14-year old practicing one of two solos she will perform during the 2018 competition season. Chavarriaga knows every step, every hand gesture, every move. Her time exists in increments of eight. Her starting line for every solo she directs — five, six, seven, eight.
Chavarriaga, an FIU alumna with a bachelor’s in elementary education, is owner and founder of Elite Arts Academy — a competitive dance studio in West Kendall. To most people, she’s just Dee. To Gottardi and the other Elite Arts students, she’s family.
“I practically live here and I love it,” said Gottardi who has been training at Elite Arts Academy since she was 4.
Ten years after opening its doors, Chavarriaga and the Elite Arts Academy family have lots to celebrate. Last summer, Elite dominated the Starbound National Talent Competition with grand championship wins in the three group categories they entered — the first sweep in studio history.
But success didn’t come easy.
“In the beginning, it was rough,” Chavarriaga said. “There’s a learning curve to knowing how to separate the dance part from the business side. I’m all about the dance part. My husband is the voice of reason when it comes to the business side.”
Elite is in a competitive market. There are plenty of well-established dance studios in the area and several dance magnet programs that feed students to them. In that environment, it was not easy to be the new kid on the block. A good studio wins competitions. It was difficult to recruit when there are no trophies to show, but Chavarriaga was determined.
Boots on the ground and flyers on cars were the go-to marketing tactics at the time.
“We did a lot of walking. Passed out a lot of flyers, but when that first person signed up, it was all worth it,” Chavarriaga said.
Born in Venezuela, Chavarriaga participated in competitive gymnastics when she was only 2. She traded the balance beam for the dance floor at age 12 and never looked back. She became one of the founding members of the Coral Reef Senior High School dance team, which today is one of the top teams in the district. When Chavarriaga earned her degree from FIU in 2008, the wheels for Elite Arts Academy were already in motion. With the help of her parents and husband, she drafted a business plan and when the studio where she used to train went up for sale, she took a chance.
Chavarriaga depends on the support of her parents and husband to run a successful business. She relies on her education background to instill discipline and passion in her dancers. For three years, she taught second grade by day and ran the dance studio by night. But when her first daughter Andrea came along, she turned her focus to the studio full-time.
“I was able to take everything I learned about teaching and apply it to dance,” Chavarriaga said. “Discipline, positive reinforcement, consistency and repetition are all techniques I take from the classroom and apply to teaching dance. I am a teacher, just not in a traditional classroom.”
Of the 250 students at Elite Arts Academy, 60 are part of the competition team. Forty have solos — all requiring private instruction from Chavarriaga. She has a quiet command of the dance floor but cannot contain her infectious exuberance when her dancers take the stage. Her enthusiasm is relentless even at the end of a full day of back-to-back classes.
Some of Chavarriaga’s students today have been with her from the start.
Catherine Uribazo is one of them. A psychology major at FIU, Uribazo started as a student at Elite Arts Academy at 11. Today, she is an instructor and part of the Elite winning team.
“My first official training in dance was at Elite,” Uribazo said. “To have the first dance I ever choreographed win at nationals was amazing! For me, what sets Elite apart is the environment – it feels like home.”
Elite Arts Academy is truly a family affair. Chavarriaga’s mom runs the front desk, designs costumes and props. Her husband Mauricio, who is an FIU College of Business alumnus, keeps the books and makes sure the business side of Elite is in the black. Chavarriaga is the backbone — teacher, cheerleader and mentor.
For Chavarriaga and Elite Arts Academy, the sky is the limit. She admits the sweep is a tough act to follow going into this year’s competition season. But she’s ready.
“I knew I wanted to be a studio director since I was 17,” Chavarriaga said. “I’m living my dream.”