From plié and pirouette to carretilla and zapateado, the enchanting performance of this year's "Nutcracker" by the students of Mannakin Theater and Dance Company's en Avant School of Dance will bring two worlds of dance together on one stage on Dec. 2 and 3.
The school of dance, East Palo Alto's first and only in the city's history, is bringing together dance and music in a way that not only exposes children and families to Western culture's "high art" but also melds more traditional ethnic and cultural traditions.
"It's really exciting this year. The Moros March in the Nutcracker is arranged by Norberto Martinez, my Folklorico teacher from Houston," Nathan Cottam, Mannakin's executive director, said.
"Moros” is a style of Folklorico dance that has roots in the Moorish occupation of Spain and was transferred to the Mexican Folklorico tradition, he said. The musical number in the en Avant production is an arrangement of the March from the Nutcracker. Martinez is also bringing stunning Folklorico costumes for the performances, Cottam said.
The performances, which will take place at Eastside College Preparatory School, are a chance for the dance school, which provides ballet and other dance instruction to children through age 13, to bring the community together for a holiday experience that many families can't afford to attend in any other venue.
The en Avant School of Dance is a real neighborhood dance studio serving 175 students in East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park and the Belle Haven neighborhood. Another 1,500 family and community members have attended its past shows — the Nutcracker last December and Pinocchio this last August, Cottam said.
Since 2018, the school has offered classical ballet, Folklorico, jazz and contemporary dance lessons at 35% of market rate for classes that are identical to those enjoyed by higher income families, he said. Students can often walk to class from home or school.
But even with the lower cost, there are many families who can't afford the classes. Some mothers work in the studio office and others clean the studio so their children can stay in the programs, Cottam said.
Participants are never turned away due to a lack of funds. That's why grants and gift donations are so crucial.
"To run the school it costs me $1,000 per child per month. They can't meet that," he said. Even with the deep discount, he said, "it's a financial puzzle" of trying to balance access by the entire community and keeping the school solvent.
The $5,000 Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund grant that Mannakin/en Avant received in 2023 helped subsidize programs and productions such as the Nutcracker, which are open to everyone.
East Palo Alto council member Antonio Lopez praised Mannakin's programs after en Avant dance studio opened a permanent location last year.
"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," he said.
Mannakin opened its permanent 720-square-foot studio at 1841 Bay Road in March 2022, after being housed in various temporary locations. Student enrollment jumped, with about 80 children now attending every week.
"The idea of a leotard and tights and a bun were a little foreign at first," Cottam said. Although mothers lovingly tied up their daughters' hair, it was not done in ways that were useful for ballet balance, Cottam said. But that has changed.
"Now they know what to do," Cottam said.
About half of the students attend multiple times a week, with some students coming five times a week, he said.
Mayra Escarcega, whose daughter has attended the dance school since 2020, said last year that en Avant gave her daughter a respite from isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her daughter also learned English while learning to dance.
"That was like her first place where she was around people, and she was really happy. She loved it," she said.
En Avant has also engaged in cross-cultural collaboration. The school worked with the Feng Ye Dance School students in a Chinese folktale at Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, Cottam said.
In August, en Avant introduced an afterschool program in which students received lessons Mondays through Fridays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. There's also a homework-assistance program, he said.
As the year winds down and the stage twinkles with Nutcracker magic with a Folklorico twist, the most joyful thing Cottam said he's experienced in the past year is seeing the school grow and mature. And knowing that Mannakin/en Avant is reaching children and adults in shared ways they never had before.
"We're seeing the studio grow into a legitimate home away from home," he said.
Information about the en Avant Nutcracker performance and tickets can be found at mannakindance.org/en-avant-dance-fall-spring-2023-2024.
More information about the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, including how to contribute and a list of people who’ve already donated, can be found [PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund here.