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Northeast Times June 4th:
Dance Company Makes the Right Moves

By Jon Campisi
Times Staff Writer


At a mere 21 years of age, it’s safe to say that Michael Susten has accomplished more in his young life than many people his age.
After all, how many early-twentysomethings can say they run their own business? Count Susten among that undoubtedly small group.
Susten, a Northeast Philly native now living in Center City, owns and operates Xhale, a Philadelphia dance company that combines contemporary jazz numbers with musical theater, tap and live vocals to make for a unique viewing experience.
For Susten, his lifelong love affair with music and dance began, of all places, in front of a television set.
"I just remember being really young and watching Singing In the Rain and just feeling obsessed with that movie," he said during a recent interview at his parents’ house in the Pennypack section of the Northeast.
Susten, who comes from a family of sports enthusiasts, did try his hand at athletics when he was younger, but his passion for the arts was undeniable. It was when the daughter of a friend of his mother’s urged Susten to take up dance lessons that he found his calling.
"I thought, ‘Let me try it out,’ and I loved it," he recalled.
Susten started taking tap dancing lessons, and eventually moved on to other types of movement. He participated in various dance competitions throughout his younger years, and went on to attend Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
These days, in addition to teaching dance classes at his alma mater and running his dance company, Susten is preparing to enter his junior year at the University of the Arts. His college career took a slight back seat to an opportunity he couldn’t pass up: He spent a year living and working in Orlando, Fla., having been contracted to perform dance routines at Disney World.
"I couldn’t turn it down," he said. "It was a great experience, performing in front of people. I couldn’t ask for anything else."
Admittedly, Susten is generally shy when it comes to one-on-one interaction, but when he gets up in front of a large group, nervous is the last thing he feels.
As for Xhale, Susten said the drive to run his own dance company was something in him since high school, but the concept didn’t start to take shape until he became aware of what it meant to run a business.
With his parents support (emotionally and financially), Susten made his dream come true. On May 17, Xhale, which had been in existence only since February, presented its first show, a performance at the Painted Bride Art Center in Center City.
Susten beamed while reminiscing about the reaction he and his dance troupe received from the 225 people in attendance a mere three weeks ago. Not only did a lot of them approach him after the show to tell him what a great job he’d done, but he continues to get e-mails from dance hopefuls eager to know if he’ll be scheduling auditions.
"It feels great," Susten said of the reaction.
Susten, whose favorite style of dance is the "cheesy musical theater kind of dance," said he started his dance company while keeping in mind all those aspiring dancers who may never have had the opportunity to shine because of preconceived notions of what it means to be a dancer. For one thing, he and his friends and classmates always felt it was wrong for dancers to be judged on their body types, and not their talent.
"I personally don’t think it should be like that," he said. "I think that if you have a great technique and the passion . . . why not get the chance to perform?"
With that in mind, Susten said he set out to create a dance company that could bring together dancers of all ages, races and technical skills.
While most of the dancers in his current lineup are from the Philadelphia area, several are from New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Florida. Most of the dancers are people Susten knew from high school and college.
Susten’s own passion is choreographing. "That’s like my main goal in life," he said. "I just like working with people who want to work and create stories and bring them to life."
As for future plans, Susten said that, once he builds a name for himself and his company, he could envision opening a studio that would host open dance classes for anyone and everyone, something he thinks Philadelphia is lacking.
"There’s so many great teachers and dancers who want to learn," he said, contending that they don’t have the proper venue.
Susten acknowledges tha
t his dreams won’t come without a price, a sentiment shared by his mother, Donna.
"It’s already cost us a fortune," she said with a smile.
But mom seems to be OK with helping her son strive to be the best he can be.
"We’re giving him a start, hopefully," she said. "There’s not too many people his age who know what they want to do."
So, how did Susten come up with the name for his fledgling dance company? It can be traced to one of his dance classes. During one exercise, a teacher asked the students to close their eyes and just feel the energy around them. Susten was struck by this teaching method.
"The whole time, all you heard was people breathing, and for me, it was like an emotional experience, not seeing the person next to you, but you just felt the (rhythm) of their breath," he said.
Xhale was born. ••
In addition to performing regular shows, Xhale dancers are available for charitable events. For more information about Xhale, visit www.xhaledance.com
Reporter Jon Campisi can be reached at 215-354-3038 or jcampisi@phillynews.com