The young girl raced down the stairs, her pink tights a blur as she hurried to find her parents. Some things can’t wait and her ballet class was set to begin.
Jocelyn Magana was once that little girl. Eager to learn, eager to please, eager to grow. More importantly, eager to find her place in the world.
“I was lost,” she said, recalling the first time she stepped foot on those stairs at The Wooden Floor.
The emotions surfaced before Magana completed her sentence, her eyes welling up as she thought how her life has changed since walking through the large double glass doors a decade ago as a shy 9-year-old.
“I spent a lot of time as a little girl asking myself what do I love to do,” said Magana, now a freshman dance major at Long Beach State. “I had tried all these different things and I didn’t love anything. I was looking for something to love and couldn’t find it. After my first couple of dance classes, I fell in love. From that moment on, I wasn’t lost.”
Magana is one of dozens of young students, and the fifth current Long Beach State student, who has found her passion for plies, improvisation, academics and community at The Wooden Floor. It is a creative development youth facility in Santa Ana that is more than just a stylish dance studio for low-income children and teens.
The Wooden Floor is a counseling center. A tutoring club, a gathering place, and a friendly space for even the shiest. And for many, it is an artistic refuge where barriers are nonexistent.
The Wooden Floor CEO is Dawn Reese, a graduate of Long Beach State, strategic planner and mother hen to the nearly 400 students who spend their afternoons practicing and studying. She said The Wooden Floor enables young people to push through obstacles and emerge as strong, confident leaders.
“We are using dance to develop life skills,” Reese said. “Our approach to dance is based in contemporary dance, which uses exploration and creativity and discovery. It asks the students questions and probes them for their own thoughts and ideas to art-making. They have to improvise.
“They are collaborating, they are communicating, they are solving their own problem. Learning trust and learning how to become leaders.”
Reese said dance helps remove barriers because students suddenly have a voice, a chance to be seen, to create art and to know they matter.
“It’s powerful being on that stage,” said Rocio Cruz, who graduated from Long Beach State in 2013. A part time instructor, Cruz went to The Wooden Floor shortly after immigrating from El Salvador. She not only learned how to dance, but to speak English.
“This place gave me a second home,” Cruz said. “It was a place where I could explore and grow as individual.”
Shortly before 4 p.m., students begin arriving at The Wooden Floor in sweats, ripped jeans or uniforms, having just finished school. Within minutes, they will have changed into their tights, leotards and game faces, then head to one of three studios and hit the floor for warm-ups and new techniques.
That is followed by tutoring or, if needed, counseling sessions.
The Wooden Floor was started in 1983 by Sister Beth Burns in the basement of an Episcopal church in Santa Ana. Known as Saint Joseph Ballet, it was a summer program that gave at-risk youth an alternative to gangs and street life.
The program expanded to the community, reaching the area’s public schools, and by 1989, Saint Joseph Ballet had 150 students dancing in a donated 4,000-square foot building in downtown Santa Ana.
The organization continued to grow throughout the following decade, adding an individualized tutoring program that put students on the path to college. Saint Joseph Ballet eventually moved into its current location, a $6.8 million, 21,000-square-foot glass and stone building funded largely by donors.
As word spread, the number of students in the intensive arts-based program increased to its current 375 and added services, such as academic assistance, college prep guidance, crisis intervention and leading dance choreographers. The Wooden Floor doesn’t charge a majority of the low-income families.
At the core of The Wooden Floor program are the highly disciplined dance classes that require the students and families to make a 10-year commitment. That is coupled with a comprehensive academic strategy that has resulted in all graduates enrolling in higher education.
Reese majored in psychology at Long Beach State but landed a job with a technology consulting firm while still in school, where she learned business strategies and corporate governance. Yet, it was her years in the Long Beach State psychology department that ignited her passion for helping others.
Reese continues to serve as a mentor in Long Beach State’s Business School Center for Professional Development.
“I love mentoring younger people,” she said. “People say, ‘but you do that for work,’ and I say ‘yeah…’ Mentoring the kids is different, especially when you see them really evolve into these great young people who go out and do things.”
Reese said knew she was in the right place after seeing her first class of students graduate. Currently, 124 graduates are in college; 11 graduated from college last year, joining hundreds of others who have gone on to successful careers.
“These kids are from Santa Ana and they’ve been here all these years and they are talking big goals,” Reese said. “They are talking about ‘I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, travel the world. I want to be a nurse in international causes. I want to be a civil engineer.’
“They are the ripple effect of change for their neighborhoods. First, it’s with their families, then their neighborhoods, their communities and the whole world. So that was my big ‘aha’ moment. That’s when I really understood the ripple effect of the work we do. I saw it in their own stories.”
The ability to move with some control and enthusiasm is all that is required to audition for one of 75 spots that open up annually. Reese said they normally have roughly 300 kids try out every year.
“That’s the beauty of the model – that they don’t have to have any dance training, or be dancers,” Reese said.
Reese said only two out of 20 graduates study dance in college, largely because The Wooden Floor is more than dance classes. From the tutors and enrichment programs, the students learn more than reaching, jumping and turning.
Before and after classes, students can receive one-on-one tutoring, homework assistance and access to a computer lab and resource library to help them reach or exceed grade-level proficiency. College planning begins in sixth grade with trips to universities, standardized test training and career nights.
“Our goal is not to have professional dancers, it’s to use dance as a catalyst for change,” Reese said.
Families also can find support at The Wooden Floor, from counseling to financial literacy to housing and food security needs. Reese said they partner with many services in the city.
Reese herself was awash in emotion when she recalled one former student who recently stopped by her office. He had grown up in a gang-laden neighborhood but avoided criminal activity largely because of the values he learned in the dance program.
“He told me that if it wasn’t for this place, he would be dead,” she said.
“At the end of the day, that’s our work, to help kids move forward…. That’s the heart of what we do.”