August 2012 | Spirit, Spunk, and Heart

In California’s sleepy Central Valley, Juline School of Dance is all fired up

By Cheryl A. Ossola

The midsize city of Modesto sits almost dead center in the state of California, in the agricultural heartland of the Central Valley. And in that city is a school with a heart as expansive as the farmland that stretches out from it in every direction. A for-profit entity of roughly 540 students, Juline School of Dance is also home to the Juline Foundation for Children, with an ambitious mission to bring dance to children who might not otherwise come to it, and Juline Regional Youth Ballet, a small student troupe that aims high as a new member of Regional Dance America.

“Beatles” are among the crawly creatures in the Juline School’s production of A Bug Ballet, performed at the Juline Foundation’s annual Outreach Show (Photo by Courtney Newvine)

Located on a quiet side street, the school has five studios and a roomy waiting area, all oozing a homey welcome. Last April, amid the hum of classes and final rehearsals for a next-day performance, the air felt relaxed and the tone affectionate. Students young and old mingled, some of them elementary-schoolers from the Foundation’s outreach program, all of them adorned with smiles and colorful, mostly homemade costumes.

The school’s setup isn’t an unusual one, with the separate for-profit school and the nonprofit foundation under one roof. But the two do intersect. Some of the Youth Ballet’s 15 dancers—all Juline School students—serve as “ambassadors” in the Foundation’s outreach program, which brings dance classes to kindergarten through eighth-grade students in Modesto public schools. And the public school students have the chance to perform with the Juline dancers each spring.

So boundaries are crossed, certainly, but in a way that benefits everyone. If Youth Ballet artistic director David Arce and Juline School teacher and Juline Foundation outreach director Kirsten Raven Asturi are any example, the school’s community takes an “all for one and one for all” attitude. And that includes the parents’ approach to volunteering, says Arce. When he was considering taking the job he asked what the parental support was like; the staff’s answer, he says with a laugh, was “aggressively motivated.” If there’s work to be done, they do it, whether it’s for a school performance, the outreach program, or a Youth Ballet activity.

That attitude reflects the mind-set of the school’s founder, Juline Schmitz, a longtime ballet teacher who died in 2002. She opened her school in Modesto in 1974, teaching alone at first until Debra Bertucci (now the Juline school’s owner/director) and Gretchen Vogelzang (now executive director of Regional Dance America) joined her.

“Juline was a really inspirational ballet teacher,” says Asturi, who joined the Juline staff in 2003 and has heard loving stories about the school’s founder. “She made dancers fall in love with ballet and stick with it forever. And she really believed passionately that every person can dance.”

Before Schmitz passed away, Asturi says, “she said she wished she had done more for children who don’t have the opportunity to come to the studio. That was one of her regrets—that she didn’t bring dance to kids who don’t get a chance to experience it.” And so the idea for the Juline Foundation for Children was born, giving Schmitz the peace of mind of knowing not only that the school she loved would continue without her but that it would have a broader reach, into the public school system.

The idea came from Bertucci’s experience, unaffiliated with the Juline school, in offering dance outreach classes at Modesto’s Franklin Elementary School. “Juline really admired how that functioned,” says Asturi. “[Bertucci’s] experience at Franklin matched Juline’s wish.”

The Foundation started its work with funds donated in lieu of flowers when Schmitz died. That seed money, along with the help of a grant from United Way, allowed the outreach program to flourish. Six teachers offered 32 weeks of instruction in eight schools, including Franklin and Stanislaus Elementary Schools. Later that ratio was reversed, so that 32 Stanislaus County schools each received eight weeks of classes.

As those initial funds dwindled, however, the program has become smaller. During the 2011–12 school year, Asturi and only one other teacher brought dance to three elementary schools, in both classroom and afterschool programs. “We’re just getting to the point where we’ve got to fully work to secure donations, doing fund-raising and working on the grants,” says Asturi. “The Foundation doesn’t have a budget to hire a person specifically for that, so it’s difficult to put effort into it cohesively. If one person could do all of that, it would be a lot easier.”

With a solid nonprofit structure in place, it’s not an impossible dream. During a grant-writing seminar at the Regional Dance America/Pacific Festival, Arce says, “we talked about the outreach program, and they said, ‘You guys should be making so many more grants, because it’s such an established program.’ ” Other schools, he says, will “do a student matinee here or there just to fulfill the nonprofit [status]; we already have the outreach and we’re bringing the company into it. In the Pacific Region of RDA, there’s no other company that has as established an effort.”

That the program has value to its recipients is given tangible proof in the case of Everett Elementary, where the Juline Foundation has brought dance to children for the past eight years, starting with third-graders and expanding to K–6. Out of $5,040 raised by the PTA, the members chose to spend $4,200 of it on dance outreach. “The parents adore our program,” says Asturi. “They would have paid for all of it if we needed to ask them to do that. The year before, they did pay for all of it.”

The outreach classes are weekly, offered in eight-week sessions. Asturi’s background is in ballet, so she tends to start there. “It’s really simple,” she says. “We learn parallel in first, parallel in second, and what the concept of parallel is; it helps them later with their math. We learn tendu and dégagé; they like learning the French terminology, so that’s pretty fun. If I went into a new school that had never had dance before and spoke French to them, they’d probably wig out.

“In a new class, if you can step and clap, that’s the extent of it,” she continues. “Spatial awareness is really important for them. I try to do things that are going to benefit their brains rather than some concept of a dance technique.” Physicality, just getting the kids moving, is important. “I remember jumping rope and hopscotch and cartwheels, and I don’t see that on the playground very much. We do one game where they have to lie on the floor and then get up probably 18 times, and for some of them it’s rough. They’re sweating by the time they’re done.”

“Juline [Schmitz] was a really inspirational ballet teacher. She made dancers fall in love with ballet and stick with it forever. And she really believed passionately that every person can dance.” —teacher and outreach director Kirsten Raven Asturi

Some of the academic teachers want an emphasis on creativity; others prefer a tie-in to what they’re teaching. When one teacher described her students’ difficulty identifying synonyms and antonyms, Asturi devised a movement game that illustrated the difference. “[The teacher] just loved it, and they got it,” Asturi says. “I try to mix up the academics with them, getting the concepts in. Dance is a way to bring that to them.”

And with the Youth Ballet’s “ambassadors,” the public school students get real dancers along with their dancing. Last year three students assisted in the classroom with Asturi each week; others go when they can. Home-schooling and morning-only academic programs allow the dancers to be there during school hours. Being an ambassador is purely voluntary; some students do it for the community-service credit, and others simply think it’s fun to bring dance to other kids.

“This year, at Everett, the principal wanted a dance club at lunchtime to promote inclusion,” says Asturi. “They have a special-ed program, and they wanted to have an activity that everyone felt comfortable doing. [The ambassadors] have taken charge of that. They’re out there for 35 minutes dancing and playing with the kids.”

Two of the ambassadors, Eliana Montalvo, 15, and Anica Bottom, 17, are regulars at Everett Elementary, occupying the playground on Fridays. “Kirsten teaches them a lot of games that are dance related so they can learn rhythm and being together and having fun at the same time,” says Montalvo. “So we get a group of children and play these games with them.”

“If somebody is feeling left out of a group, they can come play with us,” Bottom adds. “The younger kids like to do it, and then there’s a group of sixth-graders. We have a lot of fun.”

These young dancers, who have been training for most of their lives (11 years at Juline for Bottom; 9 for Montalvo), jumped at the chance to share what they do. “I love dance,” Montalvo says, “and so anytime I can teach dance or have fun with other people doing dance, it’s ‘Whoa, this is cool!’ I love teaching dance.”

“When I see their joy—I don’t know how to explain it—their happiness makes me really happy,” says Bottom.

Both girls took their sunny dispositions elsewhere this summer, training at Pacific Northwest Ballet School and Peridance Capezio Center’s Blueprint Choreographic Summer Intensive (Bottom) and San Francisco Ballet School (Montalvo). And they did so with their artistic director’s blessing. Arce, a longtime former dancer with San Francisco Ballet, can’t help smiling when he talks about these girls and their fellow dancers in the Youth Ballet. He nurtures his flock with fatherly pride and makes a point of broadening their world. “Before I came here, San Francisco could have been on a different planet. New York–based companies, different planet. When I asked them, ‘Who’s your favorite dancer?’ they were naming local dancers here. I said, ‘What about Misha? What about Muriel Maffre or Darcey Bussell?’ ”

One way Arce opens doors to the greater dance world is by offering a San Francisco Ballet performance package in the silent auction at the school’s annual fund-raiser. “I include four tickets to a repertory program and get clearance for backstage access,” he says. “I take them onstage, through the makeup and wig room, costume rooms, and all my favorite parts of the [War Memorial] Opera House. We even got to watch a little bit of company class from the wings the first year. I take them across the street to see the inner workings of the ballet building and show them my picture with [SFB principal dancer] Yuan Yuan Tan in the hallway on the fourth floor. And of course my friends still dancing in the company sign autographs.”

Now in his second year as the Youth Ballet’s artistic director, you could say that Arce has emerged from the “honeymoon” period. But the marriage between him and the school seems like a solid match. Taking this job “was a big learning curve for me,” he says. “Debbie [Bertucci] said, ‘It’s your show; it’s your company.’ She said I had complete artistic vision.”

With a background in RDA as a student (and budding choreographer) with Ballet Yuma, Arce was thrilled to find that establishing the Youth Ballet as a regional company (which it had been years before, under another name) was a priority for Bertucci. Everyone benefits from RDA, he says. For the students, “there’s no competition; it’s a festival. It’s a learning experience,” he says. “Because there’s not a gold medal, it’s ‘Who do you think is the best?’ and ‘Why do you think they were the best? Think about that.’ ”

And for himself as a teacher and artistic director, Arce finds that the RDA standards regarding technique and company attributes help him keep his aspirations in line with his students’ abilities. He had taught before, stints of several weeks at a time at Ballet Yuma and Ballet School of Coeur d’Alene in Idaho over the years. But that didn’t prepare him for teaching pre-professional–level classes six days a week for a full season. He came in with a professional-dancer mind-set, his standards unrealistically high. “Person after person [at RDA] drilled into me that I needed to slow down and let the students understand the steps,” he says. “It would have taken me months if not years to figure that out alone.”

Once a year, RDA adjudicators watch a company class and the two pieces to be performed at the festival. “And then they critique my style of teaching and [the students’] style of dancing,” says Arce. “It’s someone who’s significant in the dance community, not some Joe Blow off the street. And then they give a full report on what is good, what is bad, the Foundation side, the base of the company—it’s all out there in black and white so you can look at it yearly and say, ‘This isn’t meeting standards; we should push more toward this,’ or ‘We’re exceeding standards here.’ ”

Those checks and balances, Arce says, prevent what might have started as a lofty goal from plunging into a downward spiral and keep him on track. And the students “have changed visibly” under Arce’s care, says Asturi. “It’s like you can see his hands on them while they’re moving. They’re very specific and they know exactly what he wants; he communicates that really well.”

“My life has changed so much going from being a dancer to a teacher,” Arce says. “I have dreams about my students now, and how to make that sur le cou-de-pied wrap the way I want it to. It’s very rewarding.”

A common denominator underlies the efforts at Juline School of Dance. It’s a spirit of giving and caring, and it makes itself known through the choice to live by the high standards of RDA-regulated training, through the kind of values that teach young “ambassadors” the importance of sharing at the community level, and through making good on Schmitz’s wish to let every child dance. “Everywhere we go, people value our program,” Asturi says. “They recognize what it can do and what dance can do for children.”

Last April the school’s spirit made itself evident in another way, the kind that brings a lump to your throat. Wearing shy smiles, the students formed a line after class, waiting their turn to curtsy or bow a thank-you to their visitor.