Behind the doors of a former East Palo Alto church at 1841 Bay Road, three rows of young dancers in yellow leotards and skirts, their hair up in buns or pigtails, leap onto the dance floor as they mimic every move of the instructor. The room echoes with the occasional sound of music, punctuated by instructor directions and reminders to be quiet, as children focus on honing their ballet skills.
It’s a scene rehearsed almost daily at Mannakin Theater and Dance Company’s new En Avant dance school, which opened as the first permanent ballet studio in East Palo Alto’s history in March after operating in various makeshift studios around the city for nearly five years. years.
Dancer-choreographer Nathan Cottam, who founded Mannakin Theater and Dance in San Francisco in 2013 to expand the performing arts world to new demographics, said he wanted to plant permanent roots in East Palo Alto because he recognizes a strong demand for dance in a venue. where there was virtually no opportunity for ballet.
“From the moment we opened the (new) school, parents were like, ‘OK, well, are we going to be here next month?'” Cottam said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna be here from now on. We’re here. This is our home.’
Cottam hopes the dance school will be a cultural center for many years to come, just as the Baptist Church that once occupied the site served as a gathering place for the community for more than two decades.
The new dance center is already home to around 100 young people, and Cottam expects that number to grow now that he can confidently tell families that the studio will remain permanently on Bay Road. Prior to the studio’s opening, the dance company had to operate its program at temporary locations around the city, such as at Hope Horizons (formerly Bayshore Christian Ministries) and the EPA Seventh-day Adventist Church, because there is no There were no suitable spaces available to establish a permanent studio, Cottam said.
The brightly colored 720-square-foot studio is now the official home of the company’s longstanding ballet outreach program, Cultivating Ballet Culture, which aims to make ballet more accessible and affordable for underserved youth.
Tuition at En Avant School of Dance is about 35% of what other Bay Area dance studios charge, according to the company’s website, and Mannakin ensured the studio was nearby. of those who use it. The center provides year-round dance training and performance opportunities, as well as discounted rent for other local dance and arts organizations in need of a venue.
On September 7, Mannakin kicked off their first fall session at the new studio. The program includes folklore and ballet lessons that incorporate rhythm, tap dancing and storytelling for students ages 2-13. The studio also offers workshops for adults.
“They make ballet feel normal, familiar, local and accessible, bringing in those programs that historically perhaps weren’t part of our cultural fabric or our community,” said Antonio Lopez, member of the East Palo Alto City Council. “(The studio) goes beyond ballet. It’s about how to collaborate in a way that brings together all the different cultures and histories, and that’s what they do. … Which is great , is that we are really starting to see it being visible: the ripple effects of changing the lives of young children and their families.”
For Mayra Escarcega, whose young daughter has been enrolled in Mannakin dance classes since before the pandemic in early 2020, the benefits of the program extend far beyond the dance. She said the program made her daughter more confident and even helped her improve her language skills.
“During COVID, when they started doing in-person classes, she wasn’t going to school and we weren’t allowed to go to parks and stuff,” Escarcega said. “So it was like her first place where she was with people, and she was really happy. She loved it.
“She didn’t know English, so she was learning English at the same time she was learning dancing. It helped her a lot because she likes talking with people.”
Stories like this are exactly what Cottam wants to hear.
The dancer-choreographer, who has performed with Oakland Ballet, Bay Pointe Ballet, Northern Ballet Theater and the Serbian National Ballet of Belgrade, said he is continually looking for ways to bring theater and dance to “the widest range of people and cultures possible so that new audiences are created, new voices are heard, and all people are lifted to ever greater heights of human creativity and achievement.”
Mannakin Theater and Dance’s production credo, he said, focuses on works that spontaneously bring together racially and ethnically diverse audiences by engaging creators and performers from a wide range of communities, including Hispanic, Chinese, Indian and Black.
Through his dance company, Cottam has created numerous new works, produced three tours in Serbia, and conducted outreach activities with Syrian and Afghan refugees in Bulgaria.
Lopez said he hopes more arts programs like Mannakin come to East Palo Alto so the town can continue to thrive. Historically, the city hasn’t had as many opportunities as surrounding towns, but it’s clear that programs like Mannakin’s can enrich the community, Lopez said.
“There are a lot of people who don’t come back to East Palo Alto, who go to college, who go to different universities, and they don’t believe their talents can be cultivated here,” Lopez said. “Hopefully with Mannakin we can start to set a trend where we show our young people from an early age that you don’t need to go to Atherton, you don’t need to cross the country to do these programs. You can stay here in your backyard.”
For more information on the En Avant dance school, go to epaballet.com.