All the right moves: Southampton dance academy CLI Conservatory growing by leaps and bounds

Students make their way to their classes at CLI Conservatory Monday morning, March 11, 2024.

Students make their way to their classes at CLI Conservatory Monday morning, March 11, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Teddy Forance, director at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, leads a class on Monday morning, March 11, 2024.

Teddy Forance, director at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, leads a class on Monday morning, March 11, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Tyrik Patterson, a guest instructor from Los Angeles, leads a class at CLI Conservatory in Southampton.

Tyrik Patterson, a guest instructor from Los Angeles, leads a class at CLI Conservatory in Southampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Teddy Forance, director at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, talks about the school and how it has grown since it opened.

Teddy Forance, director at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, talks about the school and how it has grown since it opened. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Tyrik Patterson, a guest instructor from Los Angeles, leads a class at CLI Conservatory in Southampton.

Tyrik Patterson, a guest instructor from Los Angeles, leads a class at CLI Conservatory in Southampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Joscelynn Bernal, a student at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, talks about the impact the school has had on her career and passion for dance.

Joscelynn Bernal, a student at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, talks about the impact the school has had on her career and passion for dance. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Students make their way to their classes at CLI Conservatory Monday morning, March 11, 2024.

Students make their way to their classes at CLI Conservatory Monday morning, March 11, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Teddy Forance, director at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, right, listens as Joscelynn Bernal, a student, talks about the impact the school has had on her career and passion for dance.

Teddy Forance, director at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, right, listens as Joscelynn Bernal, a student, talks about the impact the school has had on her career and passion for dance. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Teddy Forance, director at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, leads a class on Monday morning.

Teddy Forance, director at CLI Conservatory in Southampton, leads a class on Monday morning. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 03-12-2024 3:03 PM

Modified: 03-13-2024 10:08 AM


SOUTHAMPTON — There’s a lot of movement going on these days behind an unremarkable building facade at the Southampton Shopping Center.

Inside spacious studios, 160 young dancers are learning jazz, contemporary, theater, ballet and other styles and taking classes with the best choreographers in the business. The students, most of them 18 to 20 years old, come from across the U.S. with some from overseas, all drawn to the high-level training they will receive for 10 months at CLI Conservatory.

In one studio, shouts and cheers greet each line of dancers as they show off their moves to a pounding soundtrack.

“Without this program, I wouldn’t be dancing,” Joscelynn Bernal said during a break from class Monday. “There’s truly nothing like this.”

Bernal, 19, of New Jersey, completed a year at college on a medical track before realizing that she had to pursue her passion for dance. She auditioned at Tremaine Nationals, and CLI was there.

Now in its third year, the conservatory is the brainchild of Teddy Forance, who grew up in Southampton famed for his dancing prowess before leaving to pursue his career for 13 years in Los Angeles as a dancer and choreographer.

In L.A., he and fellow dancer Jon Arpino launched CLI Studios, an online program for dance training. Forance had long thought about how to offer that training in person and when the pandemic hit, his plan took shape.

Leasing the kind of space he needed in L.A. was unrealistic financially, but what if he moved back home? He could start at the Hackworth School of Performing Arts in Easthampton, run by his mother and aunt.

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People he spoke to about it were encouraging, and when he put up a notice of his plan online, he said, he received hundreds of auditions overnight.

‘Passion project’

Aspiring dancers leaving high school have always faced a hard choice, which usually comes down to going to college or trying to make it on their own in the dance meccas of New York and Los Angeles.

“We want to encourage more people to become artists,” said Arpino, the conservatory’s CEO and entrepreneurship teacher. “It’s a passion project, to figure out a way to train students, to get them ready for their careers in one year.”

Compared to college, he noted, the conservatory, with tuition at $25,000 and holding, takes up one-fourth of the time at one-tenth of the price.

And Forance had the contacts to provide a world-class dance education.

“Teddy is such a connected choreographer,” Arpino said. “He’s known and worked with (the visiting choreographers).”

Opening in September 2021 at Hackworth, CLI — it’s an acronym for “Create, Learn, Inspire” — had 37 students in its first year. That summer, the conservatory leased the vacant Peebles department store next to Tractor Supply Co. and set about remodeling the 20,000-square-foot space, which now consists of four dance studios, from 2,000 to 5,200 square feet in size.

Playing a major role in the construction process was Forance’s youngest brother, Jonny, who is also production manager for the conservatory.

The focus in the first semester is on learning the fundamentals, Forance said. In the second half of the year, students get more individual guidance and a chance to pursue a particular direction.

Over the course of the year, 80 to 100 visiting choreographers working in all disciplines come to teach classes, usually for five days at a stretch.

That means there are three to six visiting faculty on site each week, Forance said, supplementing the 10 full-time staff members.

“We train them to be well-rounded,” Arpino said. “We think versatile dancers will work more.”

Bernal, for one, is still looking to keep her options open and hopes she can be a bicoastal performer.

“I want to pursue so much,” she said. “I want to explore how far you can go with the craft you love.”

Besides dance training, students take classes in entrepreneurship, marketing and wellness. For accommodations, dancers have the option of staying in single or shared rooms in apartment-style housing in Northampton, Southampton and Easthampton.

March is creative film month, Forance said, with activities designed to give the class the feel of working on a music video set. Last week, the whole crew was up filming at Fletcher Farm in Southampton. The films will be premiered at the conservatory’s year-end show, May 31-June 2, at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

Next month is auditions month, when prospective employers, including dance agencies, cruise lines and Disney, come to scout new performers.

Other opportunities arise for some. Student Dakayla Wilson of Tampa, Fla., just got back from six weeks in Atlanta as a contestant on “So You Think You Can Dance” after being contacted by representatives of the long-running reality TV dance competition show.

Rapid growth

Having quadrupled its student body in two years, and with 250 enrolled for next year, CLI has taken over the lease on the former Harley Davidson dealership across the road. Construction will begin soon on three more studios there.

Forance said he didn’t expect CLI to grow so fast.

“The biggest surprise is how quickly people are grabbing onto it — how many people are willing to come to Southampton,” he said.

Arpino noted that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the performing arts, and he sees the current educational system as broken for artists.

“I think we’re pioneering a new model,” he said. “Nobody’s stepping up to solve this problem. A lot of people don’t want those options — of moving to L.A. or New York or going to college.”

Forance said it’s rewarding for him to see the students become the best dancers they can be and move on to their professional careers.

“It’s been a dream to see the dancers evolve as artists and as people,” he said.