The Olympics may be over, but the competition is just beginning for 15-year-old competitive tap dancer Kaia Koehler.
Koehler will be traveling to Germany in December to compete at the IDO Tap World Championships, a prestigious competition featuring dancers from across the globe. It's known as "Tap Olympics" among professional dancers.
Practicing for hours a day at her Lafayette home and the Concord studio where she trains, the teen has been gearing up for the meet for the past two years.
It’s a rigorous schedule, especially for a high school sophomore, but Koehler said it’s her “life’s ambition and passion” to compete. She’s one of only three girls in her age group selected to compete for the United States and the only one hailing from the West Coast.
Like many professional dancers, Koehler started young. At the age of 3, her parents noticed that she was always on the go, dancing from room to room. Enrolling her in formal dance training seemed like an obvious step.
She started with ballet, but soon fell in love with the rhythmic and fast-paced features of tap. Fast forward 12 years, and that love has blossomed into a rare talent.
“I do all different styles of dance – contemporary, lyrical, jazz, ballet – but tap is definitely my favorite. I think I get to express myself the most while tap dancing. It’s just such a free art form,” she said.
Building as a dancer also meant overcoming disappointment. In 2015, she received top overall placement in a regional competition but was not accepted to represent USA at IDO. It was a significant blow, to be sure, but she continued to train with instructor Jonathan Mercer and never gave up. This year, she qualified with ease and will compete against more than 80 others as a junior female soloist.
She tries not to let the pressure get to her, instead using dance as a mechanism to unwind. When she taps, she’s clearly in her element. Her face lights up as she lets the movement of her feet and the sounds of her shoes do the work. But that doesn't mean the importance of this competition is lost on her.
“This event is really a life’s pursuit for me. I feel lucky,” she said. “It gives me such an opportunity to dance with so many incredible people from around the world. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Mercer, who has been training Koehler in tap and ballet for the past several years, has noticed his student’s skillset develop.
“It’s been a lot of work. It’s been a lot of training,” he said with a laugh. For him, watching Koehler compete will also be a professional milestone. He said he’s incredibly proud of the effort she’s put into the competition and has set up a GoFundMe to help cover traveling expenses.
Koehler counts Mercer as one of her inspirations, a category brimming with iconic talent from the 20th century.
“There’s a huge range of people who inspire me,” she said. “Just from seeing tap movies, people who inspire me are Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, just classic people that you think of when you think of tap dancing.”
She paused, and then rattled off a long list of people who have stood by her side, including her family, friends and fellow dancers.
“All the people who support me – I really appreciate that. They inspire me and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Gillian Edevane covers Contra Costa County for NBC Bay Area. Email her at Gillian.Edevane@NBCUni.com and follow her on Twitter @GillianNBC.