Melissa Essigman’s dance background is exclusively in ballet. Yet the first-year head coach of Long Island Lutheran High School’s varsity kickline team is starting to make waves in the world of hip-hop.

Performing in the hip-hop category, Essigman’s 12-girl squad seized first place at the Long Island Kickline Association’s third varsity competition at Uniondale High School on Feb. 7.

Lutheran’s dance team first entered the LIKA competition last year, when Essigman was a first-time assistant coach helping to develop the dancers, who had performed at pep rallies and sporting events. The goal is to have the dance team earn the same level of respect given to the Brookville-based high school’s basketball powerhouses.

“That takes hard work and evolution, and we are working toward those goals
with baby steps,” said Essigman, who in her youth trained at Seiskaya Ballet in St. James.

Hip-hop was never a thought at that traditional ballet school, she recalled, and now as a coach in that style of dance, she is taking a learn-as-you-go approach. She allows her dancers to choreograph their routines, although she called on a professional to design their
competition-winning routine.

Essigman’s dancers often joke with her that, given her background in ballet, she
doesn’t fit the profile of a hip-hop dance coach.

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“I think it’s definitely hilarious seeing her go from demi or grand pliés to twerking and hip-hop, and teaching her how to milly rock and stuff like that,” said Domonique Charles, 16, captain of Lutheran’s varsity dance team. “I think that’s pretty amazing.”

Essigman has come to believe that both styles of dance tell stories. But while ballet dancers author them through a mix of rigidity and pristine grace, hip-hoppers tell their tales more freely and with rawer emotions.

“I’m obviously an older woman with a ballet background and with a real young group of girls with a hip-hop background,” said Essigman, whose two sons attend Lutheran. “They teach me the trendy lingo and help me to understand better teens who are dancing hip-hop. And I think it’s a nice balance between their hip-hop energy and my more reserved ballet background.”

As an English teacher at Lutheran who retained her love of dance, Essigman decided one day to attend some of the dance team’s rehearsals. Eventually, she landed a position as assistant coach with the squad. In her first competition as head coach last month, her dancers placed
second in the hip-hop category.

“I’m proud that their efforts have been rewarded,” she said of their first-place showing this month that qualified them to compete in the March 13 championship. 

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Charles, who has danced every style from ballet to tap to jazz since she was 3 years old, said that despite her and her teammates’ success, they remain underdogs, a designation she readily embraces.

“Our team has a million different personalities,” she said. “So I think with all of us pulling together, with such an amazing coach with such a big personality herself, we get such a great and creative masterpiece that you won’t really find anywhere else.”