Going to Xtremes
June 1, 2009

In studio owner Sam Renzetti’s world, you’ve got to work it!

Sam Renzetti

Sam Renzetti is either deluded or driven. Last fall, he took over the lease for the Naperville, Illinois, space he’d been using for six years. At a time when many were losing their jobs, he opened his wallet to refurbish the space into a 10,000-square-foot full-service dance studio. Though many would question his timing, Renzetti is not the type to shy away from hard work. And given his track record so far—not to mention his infectious optimism—his business seems poised to succeed.

At age 28, he already has major accomplishments under his belt. He formed the teen hip-hop company Xtreme Dance Force with 50 dancers in 2002, and he built it into a nationally recognized powerhouse that performs on TV and with some of today’s hottest musical acts. Now he has nearly 200 dancers in the troupe and its feeder companies, Xtreme Dance Alliance (ages 13–17) and Xtreme Dance Team (ages 7–12). The studio—Xtreme Dance Center—offers 40 classes a week in hip hop, ballet, tap and jazz. And for Renzetti, this is only the beginning.

“My hope is that in the next two years, we’ll become the number one studio in Chicago; in the next three years, the number one studio in Illinois; in the next five years, the number one studio in the Midwest; and in the next seven years, the number one studio in the country,” he says.

Five days after the studio’s February grand opening, Renzetti was rehearsing for the next weekend’s Applause competition and flying to Denver the following Monday to teach a workshop at A Rocky Mountain School of Dance and Performing Arts. He’s frequently on the road as a guest choreographer and teacher, working with Chicago Dance Connection Conventions, Power Pak, Dance Power Express and Wild Dance Intensive, among others. He handles his studio’s administrative duties on weekdays, devoting his nights and weekends to rehearsing and teaching class. His small staff includes his younger brother J.C. and Alvin Ramirez; all three teach hip hop. The faculty is rounded out with two jazz and two ballet instructors.

Nearly all the members of Renzetti’s elite company were drawn from his junior companies. They are required to audition, and he doesn’t hesitate to replace dancers who aren’t sufficiently focused and committed. He looks for the ability to pick up multiple styles and absorb choreography quickly. He stresses discipline and hard work in class and rehearsal, which are guided by a few non-negotiable rules: no gum, no cell phones, no talking while the director is talking and no inflated egos.

“I won’t tolerate cockiness,” he says. “Even when we win, I say, ‘Great job, but . . .’ There’s always the but. If it wasn’t great, I tell them. I’m honest with them—if I’m not, I’m doing them a disservice. How else do you expect to get better?”

The companies are split into two divisions—jazz and hip hop. Hip-hop dancers practice on weekends, jazz dancers during the week. Those who join both divisions easily log five days a week in the studio.

Autumn Broviak, 19, is one of those dancers. She has been with Renzetti since age 12 and hopes to go pro once she leaves Xtreme. She believes Renzetti has prepared her well for that. “He doesn’t sugarcoat feedback, which is really to our benefit,” she says, and adds that she and the other students consider the studio their second home.

Part of the goal in owning the studio, Renzetti says, is to increase the variety of classes offered to make his students more versatile, more technically trained and better prepared. Dancers can’t just know hip hop these days, he says. To dance on TV or join a music tour they need to be technically trained. And if they’re well-versed in everything from ballet to jazz to Latin, they’ll be able to nail anything that’s thrown at them in an audition. To that end, he now requires his company members to take two classes of ballet per week.

Instructor Sarah Burney leads dancers in jazz production number, “Get Real.”

Renzetti’s mother must find it ironic that he stresses the importance of crosstraining to his dancers, when he himself resisted dance lessons as a kid. “My mother put me in tap at age 8 and jazz at age 9. I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “Then she put me in ballet and I really went nuts. But I love her for doing it.” He says ballet gave him the necessary foundation for success as a dancer.

He changed his tune about dance lessons after *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys came along and “made every guy want to dance,” as he puts it. He started taking hip-hop classes where he could find them and taught himself moves from TV and Michael Jackson videos. By 14, he was teaching his own hip-hop classes; at 20, he set out for L.A. to train with the best dancers he could find, including Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, Wade Robson and Brian Friedman. “I realized what true hip hop was when I went to L.A.,” he says.

Back home in Chicago he began choreographing and teaching, and he established himself as a role model for his young protégés. “I teach because there was no Sam Renzetti in my life,” he says.

“Sam is a great mentor for anything in life; his philosophy is to be professional in everything you do,” says former student Joe Krausz, who now dances in L.A. “And he’s a great teacher—he helps you understand movement. He really breaks things down and makes sure you get it. He figures out a way to make you learn.”

When Renzetti’s dancers leave the nest, he wants them to have the option of pursuing professional dance careers; he’ll speak to agents and choreographers on their behalf. And he believes the kids who don’t pursue dance careers will have the discipline to succeed at whatever they do.

“In the real world, everything is an audition,” he says. “And there’s always someone who’s working harder. I tell them, ‘You’re as good as you want to be.’ We give them a path to success, and it’s up to them how fast they want to go.”

On the competition circuit, Renzetti is known for “keeping it clean”—both in music lyrics and age-appropriate choreography—while delivering music-video-style commercial-grade performances. At the 2008 Starpower Las Vegas nationals, for example, Xtreme Force wowed viewers with a Chris Brown–inspired routine.

Renzetti says what separates his dancers from others on the competition circuit is their ability to do jazz, lyrical and hip hop equally well. He attributes this in part to hiring good people and bringing in guest teachers so that his dancers can learn various styles within genres.

Renzetti and co-directors, brother J.C. (right) and Alvin Ramirez

In addition to competing at four to five regionals and two to three nationals every year and performing at schools and sporting events, his dancers have found commercial work in Las Vegas and with live music tours and award shows. They have also appeared on “So You Think You Can Dance” and season one and two of MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew.”

A Rocky Mountain School of Dance owner Lynne Patton, who spent 14 years as a competition judge, says Renzetti’s attention to detail is what caught her attention at Showbiz nationals. “His movement was the best executed and the entertainment value was tremendous. But what I really tried to take back to my dancers is his commitment to executing every single movement full-out, even in the back. He blasted everyone out of their seats.”

“A studio owner who knows what they’re doing,” he says, “knows what good hip hop looks like. Turn on the TV: If your kids don’t look like that, bring someone in. If you don’t have the right teachers, find the resources to get them. The right teachers can make or break your studio.” As for finding them, he can’t say enough about networking. “I’ll talk to anyone—I’ll go to any lengths to educate my kids.”

Renzetti runs his business on a tight budget (the company and studio share an administrator), and he says that while the studio is breaking even, that is a recent accomplishment. When he has more time, he hopes to solicit corporate sponsorship to offset operating costs and scholarships.

More than money, what Renzetti seems to need is more hours in the day so that—get this—he can be more fully involved in every aspect of studio and company life, from costuming to tiling the bathroom floor. “I am the final decision maker,” he says. “Every morning when my feet hit the floor until I fall back into bed at night, I’m thinking Xtreme, Xtreme, Xtreme.” But he says the payoff comes from seeing his dancers’ growth: “I see results; I see lives changed; I see a lot of people affected.” DT

Heather Wisner writes from Portland, OR. Additional reporting was provided by Lauren Heist.

Photos by Kristie Kahns

Xtreme Dance Center Grand Opening

It was a cold Saturday morning in February—the type of morning where it’s impossible to get teenagers out of bed before 10 am. But there they were, in a strip mall parking lot in suburban Chicago—teenagers, lots of them, out in force.

The crowd formed a circle around the mayor of Naperville, IL, and they cheered as he cut the ribbon to officially open Xtreme Dance Center. With that, a new era in hip-hop dance was ushered into this upscale neighborhood.

In less than a minute, the crowd of 250 crammed back into the cavernous main studio. Teenage girls in Ugg boots and sweatpants scooted up in front of the long mirrors to get the best view, while parents lined up against the side wall or the line of windows covered in black.

Owner Sam Renzetti, wearing jeans, a white shirt and his signature knit cap, grinned as he cautioned the audience to step away from the speakers—it was going to be loud. He turned on the music, and a group of dancers dressed in different combinations of green and black with punk-rock flair—flamboyant corsets, low-slung studded belts, tutus on top of jeans—turned on like lightbulbs.

In October 2008, Renzetti got the opportunity to take over the lease at the Naperville location where he had been using studio space, and he decided to expand it from 6,000 to 10,000 square feet and make it his own. Holding a grand opening wasn’t just a way of generating media buzz for his burgeoning business. It was a way of celebrating the culmination of his dream of developing a place where hip hop could be practiced as a true studio artform, and where young dancers could launch careers in Hollywood. “I want to make this a breeding ground for professional dancers,” Renzetti said.

After the mayor and a local state representative addressed the crowd and praised Renzetti and his crew for turning a storefront space into a serious training ground for hip-hop hopefuls, Renzetti took the mic, beaming. “None of us would be here today if my mom hadn’t put me in dance class when I was 8 years old and my dad hadn’t paid for it,” he said.

To keep the energy up, Renzetti called up the second group of dancers—seven high school boys dressed in jeans, white sneakers and black jackets. As soon as they started their routine, which included lots of sharp popping and physical footwork, the girls in the front row shrieked.

Out in the lobby, dozens of trophies were on display. A wall-mounted TV played clips of the Xtreme Dancers performing on MTV’s “Made.” Elementary-school-age girls grabbed fliers of new class schedules and begged their moms to buy T-shirts.

“Sam is a total believer in being a well-rounded dancer,” said Debra Nanni, who was recently hired to teach ballet. “They’re learning how to open their minds to different styles.”

And that training is clearly paying off. During the grand opening, as soon as the parents had cleared out of the room, those same seven boys who had demonstrated the hip-hop routine earlier threw off their jackets and started practicing pirouettes in their socks.

Renzetti looked at them and approved. —Lauren Heist


Sam the Man

Sam Renzetti always wanted to be a “country-singing, dancing weatherman,” but starting his own dance company and studio got in the way. So while he hasn’t completely kicked off his meteorology or singing career yet, he still has an extremely impressive resumé. In fact, you could even say he has the best of both worlds, since he’s both a dance teacher and a performer/choreographer.

2001: Auditioned for “Popstars,” a reality TV show, and made it to the top five semifinalists in Chicago before being cut.

2002: Cast as the main dancer and singer for a music video that was part of Big Idea’s Jonah: A VeggyTales Movie. (Renzetti wasn’t required to dress as a vegetable!) The video was distributed to churches all over the world.

2002 and 2004: Auditioned for “Nashville Star,” a reality TV show search for the next country music star, but didn’t get cast. “I didn’t make it because I didn’t have a guitar in my hand like everyone else,” Sam says. “If I wasn’t running Xtreme, I’d be in Nashville learning how to play and taking voice lessons.”

2003: Enrolled in Northern Illinois University’s meteorology program, but dropped out to run the Xtreme Dance Force company. Renzetti earned an associate degree. He is still slowly pursuing meteorology.

2006: Choreographed the halftime show featuring Lupe Fiasco for the Major League Soccer All Star Game.

2007: Auditioned again for “Nashville Star,” but showed up five minutes late (he had to pick up a guest teacher from the airport).

April–June 2008: Cast on MTV’s “Made” as a dance coach assigned to turn a young girl into a hip-hop dancer. “Every dance teacher in Chicago tried out, but they called me back!” Renzetti says. He helped her form her own crew and choreographed a routine for them to perform at Showbiz.

May 2008: Xtreme Dance Force Crew made it onto season two of MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew.” Renzetti was already filming “Made,” so he sent his captains J.C. Renzetti and Alvin Ramirez, and a few others, in his place.

October–November 2008: MTV called Renzetti to be part of a “Made” special—the hip-hop challenge. Six days after his studio opened, he flew to Boston so that he could film the show. He ran his studio long-distance. “When opportunities come, you have to take them. You can’t make excuses,” Renzetti says.

2009: Recently choreographed a routine for seven of his teen girl students for the “America’s Got Talent” audition. At press time, they had made it as far as the live audition taping in Los Angeles. —Lauren Levinson

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