Like so many little girls who twirl around their living rooms outfitted with pink tutus, tiaras and wands in hand, Haley Utterback was no different.
At the tender age of 7, the decision was made: she was going to be a ballerina.
Now at 15, Haley is more determined than ever to pursue her dreams of becoming a dancer. This busy high school sophomore still enjoys wearing a tutu – albeit, a stage costume for her performances – but now her repertoire has grown from training in strictly ballet to jazz, tap, contemporary and even liturgical, a form of dance that is incorporated into liturgies or worship services.
Her dreams of having a career in dance include becoming the ballerina her younger mind envisioned, or maybe majoring in dance at a university and learning choreography. Regardless of her direction, Haley’s exhausted mother supports her daughter's pursuits by driving her to and from their Concord home to her daily classes at Ace Dance Academy in Walnut Creek.
“Dance is Haley’s passion. It has increased her confidence, poise and has made her even more outgoing,” said Amanda Utterback, a stay-at-home mother of two, homeschooling both her children full-time. “As long as she is pursuing where her drive and talent is, I am whole-heartedly going to support her.”
Before coming to Ace Dance Academy, Haley took classes at another Walnut Creek dance school--The Contra Costa Ballet school--where serious young dancers go to train to become professional ballerinas.
As other interests floated around her idealistic young mind, Hayley left the dance world for a few years to try other activities. When she decided she was going to try dance again, this time more seriously, she was first in line to sign up for classes at a brand new dance studio that had opened up near the edge of town.
Three years later, Haley has managed to not only pick up right where she left off, but is now part of Ace Dance Academy’s Performance Ensemble and competes with other dancers in the region.
Across town, in the heart of downtown Walnut Creek where busy shoppers and diners rush to find the best parking spots near Pottery Barn and Starbucks, 8- year-old Meaghan Wottrich is focusing on her tendus and plies at Lareen Fender’s The Ballet School. Her teacher repeats commands in a supportive, yet stern tone, telling Meaghan to not forget to point her toes as she straightens her body in first position. Meaghan smiles to herself knowing she is getting better in her ballet technique.
“I like to dance because it is fun! It is fun to work hard so I can get to the next level, and I really like to perform,” said Meaghan gleefully, her eyes twinkling. “Dancing makes me feel great!”
Similar to Haley, Meaghan also has plans to advance in ballet, but is currently undecided between a professional path in dance, musical theater or soccer. The fickleness of an 8-year-old and the certainty of a 15- year-old are fueled by the vast array of classes offered in the various dance schools spread throughout the city of Walnut Creek -- a mecca for young dancers.
Being so close to a large metropolitan city, Walnut Creek is the hub of an innovative dance community. Home to two notable ballet dance companies – Company C Contemporary Ballet and Diablo Ballet -- a flurry of dance schools have popped up in recent years catering to the next lineup of determined young dancers like Haley and Meaghan.
In fact, the City of Walnut Creek -- through its Civic Arts Education Program, in collaboration with Diablo Ballet -- also offers an array of dance classes ranging from ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop.
Lauren Jonas, co-founder and artistic Director of Diablo Ballet is surprised that many residents of Walnut Creek are not aware of the dance curriculum offered at Civic Arts Dance Academy for students of all ages.
The idea to incorporate an acclaimed ballet company’s expertise with the city’s Civic Arts education program was the brainchild of Jonas and Civic Arts Education Manager Kathy Nelson. Having a dance enrichment program taught by professional dancers is one component Jonas would like to bring forth to an arts-loving community such as Walnut Creek.
“What is unique and interesting about Civic Arts Education Dance Academy is that all the ballet classes are taught by world-renown professional dancers, specifically, the Diablo Ballet dancers,” said Jonas. “This is a very different approach - having professional dancers who are on hand teaching the students.”
Sabrina Beisner, 12, an exuberant young dancer studying ballet at Civic Arts, agrees with Jonas as she squeals in delight at the utter mention of Edward Stegge, one of her three teachers and a dancer with Diablo Ballet.
“I love all my teachers, but Mr. Eddie is the best!” says Sabrina. “I really love how he teaches us. He takes his time to go through the moves and he has a great time when he’s teaching. He even forgets that class time is running out.”
Like Civic Arts and the Ace Dance Academy, Lareen Fender’s The Ballet School offers classes in many forms of dance aside from ballet (to not be misled by its name). This includes jazz, tap, yoga, stretch and musical theater.
Since its doors first opened 35 years ago, The Ballet School enjoys the historical distinction of being the oldest business currently operating on Main Street. The director is Jennifer Perry, Fender's granddaughter. The Ballet School caters to all levels of students who want to pursue the love of dance, whether as a career or simply as a hobby. Perry feels her students are not only taking classes at The Ballet School, they are creating a familiar, warm environment for one another other.
“I feel the Ballet School thrives on making students feel comfortable here, rather than being a sterile ballet studio,” said Perry. “Our classes are ongoing all year long and anyone can take classes, drop in at any time without worrying whether or not the session already started.”
A baby in the mix, and not to be overshadowed by its predecessors, Ace Dance Academy is the newest dance school to open its doors to Walnut Creek area. Just shy of three years since its grand opening, Ace Dance Academy offers classes in ballet, jazz, tap and a repertoire that includes contemporary and liturgical. The uniqueness of the studio is apparent when one walks through its doors and is greeted by the staff of very friendly, university-taught dance instructors.
"With today's chaotic homework-filled, over-booked lifestyle--dance is a great physical, mental and emotional release," said Jenny Hudson, director and part-owner of Ace Dance Academy. “At Ace, we teach all aspects of dance education and our students learn dance technique along with artistry, performance and dance history.”
An Arthur Murray dance studio next month on May 10. In addition to teaching various styles of ballroom dance to adults, the studio, named for the legenday dance instructor, will also offer programs for kids.
With summer quickly approaching, parents throughout the East Bay are frantically scheduling their children’s activities. And naturally, all the dance schools will not only continue their normal schedule of classes, but some will also offer a modified, more intense schedule aptly named “summer intensives” for intermediate and advanced students.
"One of the camps that we're particularly excited about this summer at Ace is our Intermediate-Advanced Choreography Intensive,” said Ace Academy's Hudson. “Students have the opportunity to take rigorous technique classes in ballet, jazz and contemporary and learn how to choreograph their own pieces. We enjoy teaching our students the skills necessary to craft an intelligent and artistic dance piece. We help them become artists as well as athletes."
Here are Walnut Creek dance studios and classes offered:
Ace Dance Academy
Classes offered in ballet, jazz, tap, contemporary, hip-hop and liturgical for all ages. Ace Dance Academy will offer a few different summer programs ranging from princess and fairy camps for younger dancers; and dance exploration and choreography camps for slightly older students. www.acedanceacademy.com, 1825 Mount Diablo Boulevard, 925-934-7466.
Walnut Creek - Civic Arts Dance Academy
Classes offered in ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop for all ages. The summer intensive repertoire will include ballet technique, pointe, character, modern and jazz, www.arts-ed.org, 111 North Wiget Lane, (925) 943-5846.
Contra Costa Ballet Centre
Classes offered in ballet technique from age three to adult. The summer intensive program is sought after by students from all over the Bay Area. However, the intermediate and advanced levels will require an audition to participate.
www.contracostaballet.org, 2040 North Broadway, 925-935-7984.
Lareen Fender’s, The Ballet School
Classes offered in Ballet, Jazz, Tap and Musical Theater. The school will continue their regular classes throughout the summer, but in addition, a musical theater program called Little Broadway is offered to students ages 5 to 12, where they will learn to sing, act and dance scenes from famous musicals such as “Sound of Music.”
www.theballetschool.org, 1357 N Main St # A, 925-934-2133.
The studio will offer a full menu of dance classes for adults and children of all skill levels. It will be open 1 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment only on Saturdays. www.arthurmurraylive.com, 1536 Newell Ave.