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Audiences set to return to the Wooden Floor after a year of remote dancing

Students Viviana, Jasmine, and Ariana in the midst of rehearsals
Students Viviana, Jasmine, and Ariana in the midst of rehearsals for the Wooden Floor’s 38th annual concert “Passage/Home.”
(Courtesy of Sarah Delgado)

If you’re passing through Main and 19th streets in Santa Ana later this month, you might catch a glimpse of young dancers performing in and out of the Wooden Floor’s flagship location.

The performance is part of the nonprofit youth development organization’s 38th annual concert “Passage/Home: A Site-Specific Exploration of Place” and marks the first in-person event after a year of dancing remotely.

Audiences will be guided to 10 spaces throughout the facility stationed with dances, multimedia and visual installations highlighting the Wooden Floor’s legacy of enriching the lives of youths. They commit to working with 475 low-income students for 10 consecutive years from third to 12th grade, offering ballet training mixed with modern dance, improv and choreography classes.

Last year, dancers were in the middle of their second rehearsal run before they had to cancel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The staff realized the annual concert for 2021 would not take place in a traditional theater environment either. Instead of their usual Irvine Barclay theater location, they decided to switch the venue to the nonprofit’s first building, designed by architect Ernesto M. Vasquez.

Students Juanita, Valezka, and Frida rehearsing in front of the Wooden Floor's Main Street Location
Students Juanita, Valezka, and Frida rehearsing in front of the Wooden Floor’s Main Street Location for the 38th annual concert “Passage/Home.”
(Courtesy of Sarah Delgado)

“Our students call our building a second home because they are with the Wooden Floor for 10 years,” said Dawn Reese, chief executive officer. “We don’t ever say that to them. They say that amongst themselves. Our choreographer, on his own, named the concert ‘Passage/Home’ not knowing that the students call it their second home. He just felt that was the right title for this time when they are coming back.”

This year’s performance is a unique opportunity for the dancers, ranging from 11 to 18 years old, to co-create movement alongside artists and designers.

“Creating at this juncture in time, it has taken on additional resonance as a homecoming, a return ‘home’ for the Wooden Floor community,” said choreographer Stephan Koplowitz, who has created site-specific works for more than 30 years. “Site dance brings people from diverse parts of life together and makes us experience our surroundings with new eyes.”

The organization offered a summer pilot dance program when it was founded in 1983 by Beth Burns, who at the time was a Catholic nun with St. Joseph of Orange. Over the years, the program changed to become more involved in public schools and eventually opened a flagship location in Santa Ana with three dance studios, education and community centers.

By the time Burns retired in 2005, programming had expanded to support dancers in their quest to graduate from high school and move on to higher educational pursuits. Free tutoring and college prep assistance, such as classes on writing a personal statement, were offered. A family service component was also introduced, offering emotional wellness support to students and parents.

In 2009, the organization changed its name from Saint Joseph Ballet to the Wooden Floor. Almost 10 years later, it opened a second location within the Depot at Santiago, an affordable housing community.

Performing students rehearsing for the Wooden Floor's 38th Annual Concert: Passage/Home.
Performing students rehearsing for the Wooden Floor’s 38th annual concert “Passage/Home.”
(Courtesy of Sarah Delgado)

For the annual concert, dancers are expected to fulfill an 80% attendance requirement and maintain a GPA higher than 2.5 in order to perform. They’ve balanced school and rehearsals ranging from one to four weeks long, for five to six days a week.

Participation in this year’s concert, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place, was voluntary. About 80 dancers signed up and began rehearsals in January.

Fifteen-year-old Alexander Vargas, who lives in Santa Ana, has spent four years at the Wooden Floor. His mom heard about their dance programs and took him to the free auditions. He was reluctant, but his parents encouraged him to try it out for one year. Today, his favorite form of dance is ballet and his experience at the Wooden Floor led him to enroll in Orange County School of the Arts’ Ballroom Dance Conservatory.

Vargas, who has tuned in to Zoom dance classes this past year, will be one of the dancers stationed outdoors during the concert.

“I was so used to dancing around other people seeing them face to face [prior to the pandemic],” said Vargas. “When I’m here at my house, it feels kind of lonely because all you see is a screen. Of course I adapted to it, but I’d prefer dancing in person, socializing.”

Karen Carrasco, 12, who was inspired to dance after watching the “Angelina Ballerina” animated show, felt the same way. She said the highlight of in-person rehearsals has been making new friends.

“When we were online in our house, I felt like I didn’t want my parents to see me dance because I got more nervous,” said Carrasco, who lives in Santa Ana and attends O.C. Educational Arts Academy. “I adapted to online [learning] but I didn’t adapt to dancing in front of my parents. It’s just uncomfortable sometimes. The in-person concert feels great because you get to talk to someone your age.”

Young dancers rehearse on the stair steps of the Wooden Floor's Main Street location
Young dancers rehearse on the stair steps of the Wooden Floor’s Main Street location for the 38th annual concert “Passage/Home.”
( Courtesy of Sarah Delgado)

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Wooden Floor had just finished fundraising more than $20 million in order to ensure the second location could operate for the next 10 years. The organization also grew its endowment from $2.7 million to about $8 million.

Its financial security prevented the organization from cutting services over the past year.

Within a week after shutting down facilities, they started testing prerecorded classes and eventually offered live classes throughout the summer and fall.

About half of the students did not have access to a laptop. The nonprofit raised money and used extra COVID-19 relief funds to purchase 225 laptops in June 2020 for students to keep indefinitely.

Reese said they called homes routinely to keep students engaged and offered more resources for parents to connect through virtual support groups, which is one of the activities she plans to continue as the Wooden Floor reopens.

“Our No. 1 goal, especially during the pandemic when our students have been going through these really deep challenges, is to ensure they emerge as really confident leaders, that they keep their big visions for their future and that the pandemic doesn’t pull them down,” Reese said.

Vargas and Carrasco have a few more years until they graduate. But when asked, they don’t hesitate to name their respective visions. Vargas sees himself becoming a computer engineer at UC Irvine or Cal Poly Pomona. Carrasco wants to run a school as a vice principal and will be the first in her family to attend college.

If you go
What: “Passage/Home: A Site-Specific Exploration of Place”
When: July 15 through 17 and 23 through 24, various showtimes
Where: The Wooden Floor, 1810 N. Main St., Santa Ana
Cost: $20 general admission, $10 admission for children under 13 and students
Info: www.TheWoodenFloor.org

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