Back Bay High is focused on credit recovery, but a dance team is making room for more

Nicole Sullivan, left, Moss Elliott, Yaretzi Pastrana, and Gwen Alvarado, members of the Back Bay High School dance team.
Nicole Sullivan, Moss Elliott, Yaretzi Pastrana, and Gwen Alvarado, from left, members of the Back Bay High School dance team.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

At Costa Mesa’s Back Bay High — a continuation school for students who, due to illness, relocation or other life circumstances have strayed from the path to graduation — credit recovery occupies most of the school day.

That mission can preclude typical high school offerings, like sports teams, clubs and extracurricular activities, making Back Bay an unlikely locale for something like a dance team.

Yet a small group of students, assembled last spring under the guidance of an instructor with a passion for dance and for giving kids a personal sense of agency, has done just that. The Back Bay High dance team lets participants learn and develop choreographies and then perform at events.

Instructor Cami Marseilles, who teaches yoga and dance and oversees the school’s Associated Student Body, says engaging in dance together can boost kids’ mental health and help forge social bonds.

“A lot of our kids come to school with trauma and have been through difficult situations,” she said Thursday. “And the relationships that have happened in this room, and having an adult they can trust, has really helped them heal.”

Moss Elliott, Nicole Sullivan, teacher Cami Marseilles, Yaretzi Pastrana, and Gwen Alvarado, the Back Bay High dance team.
Moss Elliott, Nicole Sullivan, teacher Cami Marseilles, Yaretzi Pastrana, and Gwen Alvarado, from left, form the Back Bay High dance team.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Those who meet daily during fourth period to practice moves roundly agree, saying the tiny team has become much more than just a class.

“This group, to me, seems more like a family,” said junior Gwen Alvarado who, in her first week on the team, already senses its closeness. “You don’t just have acquaintances, you have friends. And then friends turn into family.”

Senior Nicole Sullivan had always been interested in dancing but was too nervous to join the team as a student at Costa Mesa High, where high-octane performances before large audiences were par for the course. When Marseilles passed around a sign-up sheet last spring, she decided to go for it.

Everything was going swimmingly until June, when it came time for the team to dance in its first public performance at Back Bay’s annual end-of-the-year outdoor luau.

Nicole Sullivan, Moss Elliott, Yaretzi Pastrana, and Gwen Alvarado, from left, members of the Back Bay High dance team.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Sullivan said she was a nervous wreck and beginning to rethink the whole thing. But with some coaching from Marseilles, she managed to push back her anxiety and be there for the team.

“I just did the dance we’d been practicing and pretended nobody was at the tables, and I got over it,” she recalled. “Afterward, I was relieved, and all the panic and the stress was just gone.”

Sophomore Moss Elliott overcame a similar case of nerves during an inaugural winter performance.

“It was really hard the closer we got to it. But then it came down to, even if I feel nervous, I want to do this anyway, because I want to do this for Miss M,” Elliott recalled. “I want to do this for the other dancers — I can’t just leave them. Then I did it. It was probably the most fun thing I’ve done all year.”

For Elliott, dancing is a freedom, and dancing with people you respect, love and care about makes practicing the art form that much better.

Senior Yaretzi Pastrana first became interested in dance when she was 6 and she and her sister watched their mother belly dance, sometimes joining in. Later, Pastrana got interested in hip-hop dancing and joined the team at Newport Harbor High School.

Now at Back Bay, she’s happy to dedicate time to the practice.

“My best friend was in this dance class, and I could see her coming to the class,” she said of her initial interest. “I did dance at my old school and was really good at it. Every day, that was the part of the day I liked most.”

Back Bay Principal Mike Wagner admitted he was somewhat skeptical when Marseilles approached him about creating a dance class and a team.

“I was like, these kids aren’t going to want to dance,” he said Thursday. “But they’re totally into it. She helped them get the confidence it takes to get up there and perform in front of the school — it’s amazing.

“It connects them to the school,” he continued. “One of the biggest reasons they’re probably here is they were not connected to their regular school. So, we’re always looking for these hooks to engage them. And this is another opportunity.”

Marseilles, who tears up whenever she thinks about all her students have been through and accomplished, said although some school dance teams are competitive, she wanted to create a class that welcomed all.

“It takes just one thing to get a kid to school, even if it’s a small thing,” she said. “My purpose in coming here was to give kids something like that — to make them feel safe and that they have an adult they can trust.”

For Sullivan, who sought sanctuary in Marseilles’ room during some particularly rough times, the dance class transcends mere course credit.

“It’s a safe place,” she said.

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