When Molly Long first began Project 21, she was committed to doing things her way. Eight years and a dominant competition studio later, it seems her instincts were spot-on. Long was born into the dance world; her mother owned a studio called California Dance Academy in Orange County, California. Her aunt also taught at the school, and Long began her training there at just 3 years old. By the time Long was 5, her mother had closed CDA and merged with a more competitive studio called Dance Precisions, where Long trained until she was 18. “I don’t think I even really liked dancing when I was little,” she says. “But it was the only way to spend time with my family, so I’d go anyway.” According to Long, though she was a good dancer she was never the best in the room, which was fine by her because she didn’t actually want to be a professional dancer. “I don’t like unpredictability or being told what to do,” she says. “I like a strict schedule and telling other people what to do.” She also enjoyed choreographing, so teaching was a natural fit.
Long taught her first dance class at 16, when her mom needed someone to help run the studio. Eventually, she became the full-time “mini” teacher at Dance Precisions. She stayed in that position until she was 21, when she left the school to travel as a freelance choreographer. After a year of working in places like Australia and New Zealand, Long decided she wanted something more consistent. “I missed working closely with kids and seeing them get better day by day,” she says. But she wasn’t interested in simply joining the faculty somewhere. “I had seen a lot of studios with philosophies that I didn’t want to participate in, support, or continue,” Long says. “I knew if I found another local studio, I would be throwing myself into an already established dance family with rules that I didn’t necessarily believe in but would have to follow.” Thus, in 2015 Project 21 was born. “I create the rules, I create the philosophies,” she says.
The Orange County school started with just 20 dancers between the ages of 9 and 18. Since then, it’s grown to become a dominating force at competitions and a viral sensation online (its Instagram currently has 106 thousand followers). Surprisingly, though, Long doesn’t spend much time getting her dances competition-ready. Instead, the dancers take technique and combo classes exclusively during the week, learn choreography on the weekends, and rehearse completed competition numbers only the weekend before competing. “Growing up, there was a lot of emphasis on rehearsals during the week, and it seemed unnecessary to me,” Long says. “I am a big fan of being efficient and productive, so I decided to forgo that. Because my dancers train together so much, when we put things together it’s essentially already clean.” Beyond that, Long maintains a culture of excellence at her school, requiring dancers to apply corrections quickly. “If I give a correction, I shouldn’t have to give it again,” she says. “I tell them I am doing my job by giving them feedback, and it’s their responsibility to then apply it.”
During the week, the dancers are required to take regular ballet classes at a nearby classical studio Long partners with called Yorba Linda Academy of Ballet. Then, they go back to Project 21, where they train in hip hop, jazz, ballroom, tap, modern, contemporary, and, once a week, a two-hour combo class taught by Long. “I wanted to create a space where I could train really strong, technical kids who were also good students,” Long says. “In this time, I also teach them skills that require no talent at all but will make them enjoyable to work with, like showing up on time. My kids know that if there is a 10 am rehearsal, they are expected to be there by 9:30 to warm up.”
But it’s not just the dancers’ pointed toes and straight knees that are turning heads—Long’s uniquely charming and musical choreography has set the internet ablaze more than once. Long says that she’s always had an inspirational relationship with choreography. “The second I hear a piece of music that inspires me, I have a vision of the stage and what will happen on it,” she says. As a child, Long spent a lot of time at home while her mom was working. At 10 years old, she began making up dances in her head, visualizing them onstage, and dancing them in her living room. At 13 she started helping her mom choreograph in the studio on her mini dancers, and by 16 she was setting work autonomously at the studio. “I wasn’t trying to make things go viral back then—that wasn’t even a thing,” she says. “I just did it because I loved it.”
When choreographing on her students now, Long seeks to bring fun energy to the room. “I just want people to feel happy when they watch my choreography,” she says. “Sometimes when I watch my kids do my work onstage, I have so much fun that I want to jump onstage and be part of it. That is what I want for everyone else.”
Here, Long shares her favorite teaching attire, how she keeps her energy up on long days, the Instagram account she’s loving lately, and more.
Pre-class warm-up: “I love a good butterfly and a good hamstring stretch because these areas are tight on me!”
Must-have teaching attire: “I’m always in my Lululemon leggings and tops, then either my Balenciaga Sock Sneakers or just my huge, white Balenciaga sneakers.”
Daily energy boosters: “I’m a big Nékter fan—their Toxin Flush green juice is where it’s at! I also like to listen to a nice pump-up song to get me hyped.”
Go-to breakfast: “I am a big fan of scrambled eggs.”
Nondance hobbies: “I’m a painter, and I also love pottery. If you’d asked me when I was 5 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said that I wanted to be an artist.”
Her ideal day off: “Definitely spending it in Laguna Beach. I love that there are art galleries everywhere and rooftop restaurants. It has a relaxed, beach environment, and I really feel at home there.”
The Instagram account she’s currently loving: “@hannaelisabeth. She is just this beautiful mover, and I love the videos she posts of her and her students dancing.”
How she relaxes after a long day of teaching: “In my older age, I’m trying to make rolling out a bigger part of my daily routine. I also love putting on a crime TV show, like Law and Order.”
Her guilty pleasure: “Reeses!”