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Buffalo teens steal the scene in ‘The Way, Way Back’

Almost every Hollywood coming-of-age movie from almost every era contains a pivotal scene in which the main character either slowly creeps – or gets violently ejected – from his or her shell.

In “The Way, Way Back,” an indie comedy with a small budget and an all-star comic cast scheduled to open this month in Western New York, that scene comes courtesy of four dedicated Western New York teenagers whose skills on the dance floor brought them from a modest studio in Hamburg to movie screens across the United States.

The film marks the first significant taste of national success for young dancers John Bard of Hamburg High School, Xavier Drayton of Buffalo’s Frederick Law Olmsted School, Tiley Strozewski of Iroquois Central School in Elma and Zach Weaver of Frontier High School in Hamburg, whose hours of daily training at the Future Dance Center on Camp Road in Hamburg have already begun to pay off.

The four teens traveled to the Boston area last summer to film a scene for the film, but weren’t sure until last month that the footage made the final cut. They were cast after a referral from “Dancing with the Stars” judge Carrie Ann Inaba, a close friend of Future Dance owners and former Angelenos Gino and Denise Vaccaro.

Drayton and Strozewski – wearing matching light blue T-shirts advertising the Cape Cod park Water Wizz, where much of the film was shot – sat in the Future Dance lobby on a recent Tuesday and reminisced about their participation in the film. (They were joined later by Weaver, who didn’t get the memo about the shirts.)

The scene was shot across one long, hot and intense day last summer, the young dancers recalled, and the experience was unforgettable. It features the reserved and insecure 14-year-old Duncan (played by Liam James) during his first day of work at a summer water park in a nondescript beach town. Duncan’s boss, played by a wisecracking Sam Rockwell, sends him to break up an impromptu dance battle at the park and he makes his way tentatively into the crowd to find the Buffalo-based quartet freestyling on a patch of cardboard spread out on the hot pavement.

It looks more like something out of an early Spike Lee film than a modern dance battle – where cardboard and boom-boxes tend to be nowhere in sight. But, Drayton said, that ’80s look was just what directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash were going for.

“It was very stereotypical for street dancers,” said a confident Drayton, 15, who started his promising dance career as an 8-year-old in Buffalo street dance battles. “When we shot the movie, they said they didn’t want it to be from this time. That’s why they used the whole ’80s thing, the boom box, the cardboard. But it’s nothing compared to now.”

Strozewski, an energetic 15-year-old who has trouble stopping dancing after he starts and could be found walking on his hands in the light-filled main studio of the dance school after Tuesday’s interview, agreed that the film makes a great and early check on his resume.

“To have that experience and do something that you love to do together, it’s great,” he said. “We’re really lucky.”

For all four dancers, their commitment to the form goes far beyond a hobby. They spend up to five hours a day at the Hamburg dance school in addition to dancing in their spare time and traveling to conferences and performances around the United States and Canada. Far from focusing on one area of dance, the teens take classes in the full range of styles.

“Not to sound corny, but I get life out of it. It really is a lifestyle,” Drayton said. “You work just as hard as any other athlete. There’s so much to know and to learn, there’s always more to learn. And for me, it’s really brought me up a lot in life. And I love it. I would never stop dancing.”

In the film, dance is used as a way to give the main character a much-needed boost of self-confidence, something Drayton said he didn’t identify with personally – “I was always vying for attention,” he said – but which Weaver said he understood perfectly.

“I definitely was a shy person as a kid,” Weaver, 16, said. “I would never talk to people when I was little. And then I realized that I was on stage pretty much talking to people, just not with words, but through my movements. That just kind of opened me up, and I’m not shy anymore.”

For the Vaccaros, who started the dance studio in the mid-’90s after moving back from Los Angeles the opportunity to help their young dancers succeed is gratifying.

“That’s why you do it, for them,” Denise Vaccaro, a dancer and dance instructor, said. “You get to relive it over and over and over and over, every day. You remember when you were that excited. It’s the best thing ever.”

Gino Vaccaro said the four boys’ success is already inspiring other students at the school.

“They see that someone close to their age is actually doing it, so it’s more real as opposed to us. We’re old,” he said, adding that the young male dancers at the school were especially excited about their classmates’ success.

The young dancers seemed to agree that their small taste of success only adds to an already fierce commitment to their craft that they all hope will take them into successful careers as working dancers.

“It’s a lifestyle,” Strozewski said. “From the time we start dancing here or anywhere, if I start, I’m not stopping for a while. I just go, just keep on going.”


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