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AHS Grad Continues to Pursue Her Dance Passion

Writer:  Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer  /  Adrienne Nicole Photography & Provided

From the time she laced up her first pair of ballet slippers at the wee age of two, Riley Banks was hooked on the fluidity, finesse and freedom of dance. Though ballet remained her primary focus until she reached middle school, she also took gymnastics classes to aid in tumbling and flexibility. In 2012, as an eighth-grader, she made Avon High School’s (AHS) Black & Gold Dance Team.

“It was a totally different world,” says Riley, who gravitated toward lyrical and contemporary numbers but also dove head-first into jazz and hip-hop routines.

The size of Avon’s dance squad changes from year to year but typically hovers around 25. The team performs at home football and basketball games, pep rallies, community festivals, dance recitals, invitationals and competitions.

“Competitions enabled us to travel to different high schools throughout Indiana,” Riley says. They also competed in Orlando in 2016 and 2017.

“Going backstage at Disney was nerve-wracking because the warm-up area is so different than other competitions,” Riley says. “It’s very well run and professional but also extremely intense and intimidating.”

The first year was more of a learning experience for the team as they learned the ropes. The second year they were more at ease and therefore more confident. As a result, they advanced to the second round in the jazz portion.

In the spring of 2017, just prior to graduation, Riley auditioned for the Butler Dance Team. She found that performing at AHS proved to be good training ground for college dance. More than 50 girls auditioned for the 16-girl squad. Riley was the only freshman to make the team. She quickly adapted to the faster-paced learning curve of college dance.

“In high school, we practiced the same routines all year,” Riley says. “At Butler, we learn a new dance every week.”

The other challenge was dancing for an enormous crowd.

“Hinkle Fieldhouse seats 9,100 people, and most, if not every seat is filled at every game,” Riley says. “That’s why our coach always reminds us to perform to the people sitting in the top row of the stadium.”

Though Riley describes herself as a shy person, when she hits the dance floor, all insecurities melt away.

“I don’t like speaking in public, but dancing in front of a crowd is totally different,” says Riley, who feeds on the energy of the spectators. During football season, the team performs one dance between the first and second quarter. During basketball games, they perform two times during television timeouts. The girls also perform at other events. For instance, they danced at IKEA’s grand opening in Fishers and also did a routine at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF)’s run/walk.

In December Riley and some of her teammates auditioned to be included in the annual Indianapolis Circle of Lights show. Whittled down from an initial 120 audition tapes, the Butler dance troupe was one of two dance groups selected to perform downtown for a 10,000-plus crowd on Monument Circle. The show was recorded live and aired on WTHR-13.

“It was so much fun,” Riley says. “Our focus is to always put on a good show.”

An honors student who graduated from AHS in the top 10 percent of her class, Riley was also a member of the National Honors Society for Dance Arts (NHSDA), a program that recognizes outstanding artistic merit, leadership and academic achievement in students studying dance in public and private schools in K-12 education, dance studios, community centers, performing arts organizations and post-secondary education.

“With NHSDA, we held clinics for the winter and spring recitals for 3- to 12-year-olds,” Riley says. For instance, one year they had a Disney theme and taught kids routines to songs from “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Beauty & the Beast.”

Butler University also holds a dance clinic that typically draws 75-80 kids. They learn a dance that they perform with the Butler Dance Team during a home basketball game. Butler also periodically hosts high school clinics.

In addition, last year Riley joined the Butler chapter of Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating one-on-one friendships for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Riley gets together with her buddy to go bowling, out for pizza or to the fair. Working with those with developmental disabilities is a passion she first developed at AHS when she volunteered for peer tutoring in a special needs classroom. She’s minoring in special education and plans to become an occupational therapist who will incorporate dance therapy into her career.

“Dance therapy is physical and occupational therapy through movement,” explains Riley, who experienced her share of PT after sustaining a crippling knee injury during her sophomore year at AHS.

“I was in the middle of practice when suddenly my knee gave out,” Riley says. “It was swollen and sore — nothing a little ice couldn’t fix.”

Come Saturday, however, she tried dancing on it, making it through the first routine courtesy of pure adrenaline. During the hip-hop number, however, she collapsed to the ground, having fully dislocated it. She required surgery but because she was a young dancer, the doctor stitched the tear rather than cutting out a big chunk of the meniscus. Riley had to wear a knee brace for six weeks. Then she began the grueling physical therapy process. Ultimately, she couldn’t dance for six full months.

“That whole experience motivated me to work harder because it made me realize how much I was missing,” Riley says. “After that injury, I was more determined than ever.”

Though dance is the thing she often turns when facing challenges, she also relies a great deal on her faith. Never was her relationship with God more important than last summer when her older brother, Andrew, was involved in a serious car accident that left the whole family shaken.

“No way could we have gotten through that ordeal without Christ,” Riley says. “That accident brought our family closer and also strengthened our relationship with God.”

Riley, who is involved with a dance team bible study at Butler, admits that she used to be reserved about vocalizing her faith. But that’s all changed.

“Not only has my faith become more real to me, but I’m also more open to share it now,” she says.

She also loves sharing important messages through dance. For instance, while at AHS, Riley and her teammates performed several special routines that touched on relevant universal topics. For instance, they did one that personified the various stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance).

“We were dancing in the moment for the grief we’ll experience in our lives ahead,” Riley says. They also did a number that highlighted mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. At the end of the performance, dancers raised letters above their heads to spell out the word, “human.”

“We had a lot of people tell us how much those routines touched them,” Riley says. “Some struggled to get the words out because they were so emotional.”

That’s what Riley likes about dance — the way in which movement connects humanity. She also appreciates how dancing is a metaphor for life. In dance, as in life, there is trying, training, failing, falling, trusting, teaching, growing, reaching and all the while, persevering.

“Dance is a learning experience that’s always evolving. It’s full of trial and error,” says Riley, noting how the discipline has helped her grow as a friend, a daughter, a sister, a teammate and a child of God.

“Dance moves me in the right direction,” she says.

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