CLINTON — Clinton native Zach Villa is not your typical college student.

For one thing, he’s a drama student at the renowned Juilliard School in New York. “The school only accepts 18 students per year in its drama program, so it was a real honor for Zach to be chosen out of the many applicants,” said Villa’s mother, Cheryl, of Cheryl’s Dance Academy, in a recent telephone interview.

Parents Larry and Cheryl Villa are both “tickled” at Zach’s win at the Iowa State Fair. The 20-year-old won first place in the Bill Riley Talent Search, performing a tap solo for the competition. The win garnered Villa a trophy and a check for $7,500. And a bit of vindication as well.

“He’s been competing six years now,” explained Larry. “He came in second two years ago, and was a little upset he didn’t do better. He had to wait until this year to enter again, and this was his last chance to win.”

“It was a beautiful thing to happen,” said his proud father.

Zach’s take was a bit different: “Actually, I was thrilled with second place two years ago. But I approached the competition differently this year, making it a point not to watch the competition, keeping my focus on my routine and what I needed to do.”

“It’s not really about who’s the best, but who the audience can best connect to,” explained Villa.

The audience must have connected with Villa during his tap solo performance, for his name was quickly announced as the winner of the competition.

“It felt a bit like a lightning rod,” conceded Zach, “when I heard the word ‘Clinton,’ and knew I was being chosen. I have to thank the state fair and Bill Riley for this honor.”

Cheryl shared Zach’s dance history: He started dancing at age 2, and his older brother Ryan Swanson, also a dancer, encouraged Zach to pursue his dance passion, in particular, tap.

“Tap is definitely his favorite form of dance,” said Cheryl. “To get ready for the competition, he just went into my studio and started developing his own routine.”

Zach’s mother said she’s happy to see her son’s efforts come to fruition. “It’s great to see him take all those lessons over the years, learn all those techniques, and then be able to take all of that and put his own stamp on it, individualize it.”

Zach shared his creative process — he spent four to five days in the studio initially developing his routine. Then, over the summer months, Villa started to explore the routine “in a more theatrical way.”

Villa says this past summer has been an “epiphany” of sorts for him. “I started looking at my priorities, and ‘got back on the horse,’ so to speak, not only with my dancing but other areas of my life.”

Prior to Juilliard, Zach honed his performing skills during his junior and senior years at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy visual and performing arts high school in Michigan, graduating in 2005.

“I felt really ready to leave to attend Interlochen,” said Villa,” and found a kindredship at that school. It was a place to begin finding myself.”

“Fortunately,” Cheryl said, “Zach had instructors who recognized his potential and natural talent, and encouraged him.”

Now entering his third year at Juilliard, Zach is assisting in orientation of new students at the school. His MySpace page lists a plethora of personal interests, including (not surprisingly) dance, acting, singing, musical theatre and instrumental performance. He’s even put out a CD with his rock trio, The Singularity Trio, a group of like-minded musicians and fellow Juilliard students. They have a MySpace page as well.

As for his New York experience so far, Villa said “It’s amazing, the variety of cultures and backgrounds you come in contact with here every day. It’s very much representative of a global economy and culture. And I’m trying to keep myself open and embrace and take in as much as possible — it all adds to my art.”

Villa appreciates all his parents’ support. When responding to the MySpace question, “who would you most like to meet?,” he responded with some of the obvious — “Einstein, Gregory Hines, John Mayer, Gene Kelly... and (his) parents, as children.” And heading his list of heroes? “My parents,” Villa wrote.

“I respect and love them more than anything,” Villa said.

“He’s a good boy,” said Cheryl. And talented, too. No doubt we’ll hear more about Zach Villa in the future.

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