HENDERSON — The Vance County-based I Dance Praise and Liturgical Dance Academy enjoyed another weekend of competition on Sept. 19, placing first in the Best Praise Dance Team category of the Divine Connections Gospel Magazine competition in Haw River.

Head coach and CEO Vanessa Mitchell took great pride in the performance her students put together on Saturday, which continued an undefeated streak for I Dance Praise Academy that has been ongoing since its inception back in 2016.

“Every time feels better than the last,” Mitchell said. “This is another accomplishment that just shows that all of our hard work is not going unnoticed.”

Dancing has been a part of Mitchell’s life since a young age, but she was inspired to start I Dance Praise Academy after she traveled around the state of North Carolina to teach young girls the proper techniques of the art at several different churches and organizations.

While Mitchell intended for dancing to be the primary focus at I Dance Praise Academy, she also wanted to encourage her students to get involved within the community by setting up events that included food donations for the hungry and toy drives during the Christmas season.

In its first four years of existence, Mitchell has seen enrollment grow from the 15 students who signed up during the first year, as the academy now has about 100 girls taking part in classes and competitions with plenty of room for more participants.

Mitchell said that the large class size at I Dance Praise Academy gives her plenty of options when the girls participate in competitions, but she said students’ great work ethic and close bonds have been crucial parts of the team’s overall success.

“Prayer, faith and dedication are the keys,” Mitchell said. “These girls are so dedicated and they love what they do. All of them are great listeners and they never give me a hard time during rehearsal. We might have a couple of laughs, but they know to take everything seriously and to pray for and help one another. We call ourselves a sisterhood and we uplift one another.”

I Dance Praise Academy’s consistency has earned them opportunities to gain more national recognition, which has involved dancing behind gospel singer Kelontae Gavin and participating as feature dancers of The Love Tour on CW22.

Mitchell is focused on welcoming more students and organizing events coming up in the next few weeks now that COVID-19 restrictions are being loosened across the state.

“We have open enrollment right now, but we’re also preparing for our benefit concert,” Mitchell said. “We can’t have it inside because of COVID-19, so we’re going to be at the [Raleigh Road] Outdoor Theatre on Oct. 3 at noon. The girls are going to present all of their dances and they’ll level up, kind of like martial arts. Everyone starts as a white belt dancer with the ultimate goal being to become a black belt praise dancer.”

I Dance Praise Academy’s next competition will be the Essence of Praise competition in Durham during October, which they enter as the defending champions.