VALRICO — It’s all in the family at Judy’s Dance Academy in Valrico, with Judy Comiskey set to begin her 24th year of business in the Greater Brandon area, where she was in attendance recently to support a fundraiser on behalf of dancer Britta Gundlach.
Instead of finishing her senior year at the magnet school arts program at Blake High School in Tampa, Gundlach, 17, is set to leave her Riverview home to pursue her studies some 2,500 miles away at the Brockus Conservatory boarding arts high school in Redlands, Calif.
To help offset tuition and travel expenses, Judy’s Dance Academy has been hosting a series of three “Dancers Night Out” fundraisers at the academy, 1709 E. State Road 60. There, students from preschool through high school learned dance routines, ate pizza and crafted paintings to take home with them.
“She’s crazy good,” Comiskey said about Gundlach, who recently won a leap competition for her exceptional form and elevation and has plans to pursue a career in dance and musical theater. “You want it for her because she is a wonderful human being. She has no sense of airs or arrogance and is a wonderful mentor to the younger girls.”
A fair assessment, said Caroline Lockwood, who dances at Judy’s Dance Academy and is an incoming junior at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover.
“I’ve been close friends with Britta for three or four years and I’ve known her for forever,” Lockwood said. “I’d rather her stay here, obviously, because she’s my best friend. But it’s going to be a really good opportunity for her (to go to California). It gets her exposure to different dances and new styles and gives her more performance opportunities.”
Gundlach is the last of three sisters who have danced their way through childhood at Judy’s Dance Academy, starting with Eykka Gundlach, a graduate of Blake High, followed by middle sister, Maggie Lou Stritzinger, a self-described “proud army wife,” who took an adult dance class at Judy’s this summer while her husband was deployed in Afghanistan.
“When I was younger, dance was what my sisters did,” Stritzinger said. “Then I started to like it for myself. Judy’s always been a mentor to me. She’s like a second mother to me. Here, dance doesn’t have to be competitive. It’s come and learn, come and have fun, and enjoy what you do.”
Still, when her dancers costume up for dance competitions, “We’re in it to win, to compete and to show our skills,” Comiskey said. “Had we not gone to compete, we wouldn’t know what other people are doing and the level of skill we have attained.”
At one such competition in April, Britta Gundlach took home the top award in the female category for leaping.
“She has an indefinable thing,” Comiskey said, “and unbelievable legs.”
Now at the studio, when other dancers prep to reach for the sky, they goad each other on with the cheer, “Do the Britta leap!”
“I do leap pretty high,” Gundlach admitted. “I do like leaps. You get to fly and it’s fun to be up in the air and hear people say, ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ I feel like I’m the only person in the world when I’m on stage dancing by myself. It’s a really cool experience.”
There will be many more such experiences for Gundlach as she dances her way through learning and performance moments on the West Coast.
“I want to broaden my training and see where I’m able to end up with more preparation and opportunities to audition,” she said.
But home is where her heart is and will remain, Gundlach added, giving high praise to the training she received at her dance studio in Valrico, under the mentorship of its founder and namesake, Judy Comiskey.
“Yes, Judy’s Dance Academy was fun, but you can make something more out of it if you want to, including a professional career,” Gundlach said. “You have to enjoy what you do. You can’t be forced into it. Here, I didn’t have to fit into a mold. Judy’s Dance Academy gives you the opportunity to grow into your own person.”
As for the help she is getting from her dance community — and at gofundme.com, from the greater community of friends, family and neighbors — Gundlach said she is overwhelmed.
So, too, is her mother, Dawn Gundlach, who for more than 20 years has been a committed dance mom to both her daughters and other students, as a costume maker and designer and occasional instructor.
“It’s really been overwhelming, the support the people here at the studio, as well as people in the community, have given Britta,” she said. “Judy’s Dance Academy has been such a part of our lives for 20-something years.”
To learn more about Britta Gundlach’s dance journey, or to lend your support, visit gofundme.com and enter her name in the search box.