The dance center, which is tucked on a tree-lined stretch of Broadway between a dancewear shop and a bridal shop, employs nine instructors who teach more than 200 students ages 3 to 18. The kids come from Guttenberg, Hoboken, Jersey City, North Bergen, Secaucus, and West New York.
The contest, held April 18 to 20 at the Sheraton Atlantic City, was hosted by Access Broadway, an entertainment company that presents competitions all around the country.
J&L's students have a long history of triumphs, and a packed trophy case to prove it.
In January, J&L members knocked 'em dead at the Dance Education of America (DEA) regionals at the Grand Hyatt in New York City, where Sarah Botero of North Bergen jazz-danced her way to a Junior Miss title.
The troupe now has its sights set on the DEA nationals at the Hyatt in July.
Dawn of a dance studio
The studio was founded in 1992 by sisters Josephine Garcia and Elizabeth (Lisa) Martinez.
"We started dancing when I was five and my sister was 12," Martinez said last week. "We studied acrobatics, ballet, flamenco, jazz, and tap. We grew up in West New York and entered dance competitions and parades."
Garcia started the school with 10 kids in her house, and the rest is history.
The sisters now have a studio with students who study the same dance styles that Garcia and Martinez did growing up.
Shortly after returning from Atlantic City, the students were clustered around a television at the dance center, watching a video of their triumphant showing.
About 350 dancers from 17 schools in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia played to a packed house in the hotel ballroom.
As many as 364 separate acts featured solos, duets, trios, and groups. Styles included ballet, flamenco, hip-hop, jazz, tap, and lyrical dance, a style that tells a story with tap and ballet.
J&L students participated in 48 acts. Its group finale, featuring all 40 dancers, won the platinum trophy, the highest prize. Garcia took home the studio award for best choreography, one of two awards given to directors.
"It was awesome, very rewarding to work all year with the girls," Garcia said. "It's a great feeling to watch what the girls put into it and to see that come to fruition. We won out of 400 numbers, and that's good."
Altogether, J&L dancers brought home four platinum, seven high golds, and 12 golds in the solo division; two platinum, four high golds, and two golds in the duo and trio division; and three platinum, three high golds, six golds, and one high silver (for acting) in the group and production division.
After the competition, Broadway actors, dancers, and singers instructed the students in a workshop hosted by Access Broadway. As a finale, the students performed on stage in front of judges and cameras. The six competitors who performed best in three categories won scholarships.
J&L student Madeline Novak of Hoboken was this year's scholarship winner, which means that she can attend next year's workshop for free.
Dancing is "great for self esteem," Madeline's father Michael said. "Both Madeline, 10, and my daughter Millicent, who's 8, view themselves as dancers. They really enjoy practice and stage performance. It gives them a sense of discipline, and they like the fun and exercise as well."
One of J&L's top students, Yuri Yoo of Palisades Park, won a ballet scholarship and platinum in all her solos.
Said Martinez: "They work so hard for this. I sent messages to the students' MySpace pages saying, 'I'm so proud of you guys. You make my job so worthwhile.'"
Hobby or career
"Some of our students dance as a hobby or for exercise," said Martinez. "Others want a career and some have gone into the dance field."
She cited two students who auditioned for MTV's "The Crew, the battle for Hip Hop Dance Supremacy" - Donna Crooke of Kearny and Sasha Herrera of West New York, who is now a teacher at J&L.
In fact, the popularity of reality dance shows like "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance" have inspired kids to take dance lessons.
But not boys.
Garcia and Martinez have four sons between them, ages 2 to 17, but aside from about four boys at the center who do hip-hop, most of the students are girls. One of the boys is Martinez's 4-year-old son Matthew.
"We'd love to have boys doing ballet," said Martinez, "but in this area it's so hard because they think it's too feminine."
Many J&L dancers will be competing in the May 23 NJN Hispanic Youth Showcase Talent Search 2008. Students competing for scholarships will be featured on Images/Imagenes, the long-running bilingual Emmy Award winning series on NJN Public Television.
Garcia and Martinez also take their students to New York to see the pros. They've been to the American Ballet Theater's production of "Swan Lake" and met members of the company, and they've seen a number of Broadway shows.
"We've become a family," Martinez concluded. "Most students have been here since they were three, and you become like their mother. It doesn't even feel like a job."