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 loosely pulled up in buns or pigtails, jump across the dance floor while mimicking the instructor's every move. The room rings with the occasional sound of music, punctuated by the instructor's directions and reminders to keep quiet, as the children concentrate on honing their ballet skills.
This is a scene repeated almost daily at Mannakin Theater and Dance company's new En Avant School of Dance, which opened its doors as the first permanent ballet studio in East Palo Alto's history in March after operating in various makeshift studio spaces in the city for nearly five years.
Dancer-choreographer Nathan Cottam, who founded Mannakin Theater and Dance in San Francisco in 2013 to expand the world of performing arts to new demographics, said he wants to plant permanent roots in East Palo Alto because he recognizes a strong demand for dance in a place where there has been virtually no opportunity for ballet.
"Since the moment that we opened the (new) school, the parents are 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 place."
Cottam hopes the dance school will be a cultural hub for many years to come, just as the Baptist church that formerly occupied the site served as a gathering place for the community for more than two decades.
The new center for dance is already home to around 100 youth, and Cottam expects that number to expand now that he is able to confidently tell families that the studio will stay on Bay Road permanently. Prior to the studio's opening, the dance company had to operate its program in temporary locations around the city, such as at Hope Horizons (Formerly Bayshore Christian Ministries) and Seventh-day Adventist Church of EPA, because there were no suitable spaces available to establish a permanent studio, Cottam said.
The brightly painted 720-square-foot studio is now the official home to the company's longstanding ballet outreach program, Cultivating Ballet Culture, which aims to make ballet more accessible and affordable to under-served youth.
Tuition at En Avant School of Dance is about 35% of what other dance studios in the Bay Area charge, according to the company's website, and Mannakin has made sure that the studio is in close proximity to those who use it. The center provides year-round dance training and performance opportunities, as well as reduced-cost rent for other local dance and arts organizations that need a venue.
On Sept. 7, Mannakin kicked off its first fall session at the new studio. The program includes Folklorico and ballet-based classes that incorporate rhythm, tap and storytelling for students ages 2 to 13 years old. The studio also offers adult workshops.
"They're making ballet feel normal, familiar, local and accessible, bringing in these programs that historically may not have been a part of our cultural fabric or a part of our community," East Palo Alto City Council member Antonio Lopez said. "(The studio) goes beyond ballet. It's about how to collaborate in a way that brings all different cultures and histories together, and that's what they're doing. ... What's awesome is that we're really starting to see it be 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 program's benefits expand far beyond dance. She said the program has made her daughter more confident and has even helped her improve her language skills.
"During COVID when they started doing the classes in person, she wasn't going to school and we weren't allowed to go to the parks and other stuff," Escarcega said. "So that was like her first place where she was around people, and she was really happy. She loved it.
"She didn't know any English, so she was learning English at the same time she was learning dance. It helped her a lot because she likes to talk with people."
Stories like this are exactly what Cottam wants to hear.
The dancer-choreographer, who has performed with the Oakland Ballet, Bay Pointe Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre and the Serbian National Ballet in Belgrade, said he is continually seeking ways to bring theater and dance to the "broadest swath of people and cultures possible so that new audiences are created, fresh voices are heard and all people are lifted to ever greater heights of human creativity and achievement."
The production credo of Mannakin Theater and Dance, he said, focuses on works that spontaneously gather a racially and ethnically diverse audience by engaging creators and artists from a wide range of communities, including Hispanic, Chinese, Indian and Black.
Through his dance company, Cottam has created many new works, produced three tours of Serbia and conducted outreach with Syrian and Afghani refugees in Bulgaria.
Lopez said it's his hope that more arts programs like Mannakin will come to East Palo Alto so that the city can continue to thrive. The city historically has not had as many opportunities as surrounding cities, but it's clear that programs like Mannakin's can enrich the community, Lopez said.
"There are a lot of folks who don't come back to East Palo Alto, who go to college, who go to different universities, and they don't believe that their talents can be cultivated here," Lopez said. "I hope that with Mannakin, we can begin to set a trend where we're showing our young people from an early age that you don't have to go to Atherton, you don't have to go across the country to do these programs. You can stay right here in your backyard."
For more information about En Avant School of Dance, go to epaballet.com.