It’s approaching 5 p.m. and raining – the kind of day when many kids might just rush home and hunker down over video games. But in a large dance studio in Santa Ana, nearly two dozen schoolgirls in black tights and leotards dance with all their might, their faces glowing with broad smiles and the sweat of hard work.
A smile lights up the face of Chapman University alumna Alix Portillo, too, as she stands nearby and watches the scene through an observation window. Not so long ago she was a student of The Wooden Floor, a nonprofit creative youth development program that aims to transform the lives of children and teens in low-income communities by preparing them for successful college careers.
Now Portillo is both testament to and advocate for the dance program. She earned acceptance to Chapman and graduated with a degree from the Argyros School of Business. Today she works at Commercial Bank of California and serves on The Wooden Floor’s Board of Directors as the organization’s first alumni representative.
“When I was younger, I lacked a lot of confidence. Being around people who were supportive was a boost. It’s a place full of support. It felt like a second home,” says Portillo ’15.
She’s just one of many Chapman connections to The Wooden Floor. The instructor in that studio? It’s Jennifer Bassage Bonfil ’02, dance education and curriculum specialist. Downstairs in the administrative offices, more alumni serve – Tianna Haradon ’01 as development manager, and Derek Bruner ’08 as director of strategic initiatives. Chapman undergraduates work in the tutoring center, and graduate students from Crean College’s Marriage and Family Therapy program conduct a variety of workshops for the dancers and their families.
All these relationships and collaborations are no coincidence, says Dawn Reese, the organization’s CEO. She believes The Wooden Floor and Chapman truly dance to the same tune.
“There’s this thread that goes through all of the Chapman people we see here. It goes back to that global citizen idea that the University has about developing great citizens for the community. They really look at the purpose-driven work we do,” Reese says. “They are an extension of our values here.”
Since its founding in a church basement in 1983, the nonprofit has enhanced the lives of more than 90,000 boys and girls and their families. Students generally begin around age 8 and continue through high school. The curriculum and programs inspire students to achievement through dance, college readiness workshops, tutoring, counseling, career nights and field trips.
The program’s success is measurable. Since 2005, all seniors have graduated high school on time and immediately pursued higher education. Among them are several who have enrolled at Chapman. For Portillo, the attraction is obvious. Chapman clicked for her during a campus tour arranged by the nonprofit.
“When we went on campus, I could just see myself being there. … Chapman has a very community-based feeling, like The Wooden Floor does,” she says.
Such shared values are evident on a recent late afternoon as students arrive for the day’s classes. The door to a cheerful tutoring center stands open, ever ready to offer homework help and guidance through the maze of paperwork required for college planning and applications. The tidy wardrobe room hums with activity as dancers stop by for shoes and attire to fit their growing bodies. Chattering among themselves, the participants literally skip to class.
Soon, the building’s studios are alive with music, motion and rigorous instruction. Dance is integral, but it’s the discipline and structure of the total Wooden Floor experience that create a unique, life-changing alchemy.
Dance as ‘Vehicle for Change’
“We believe that taking a very sophisticated approach to dance is a catalyst for children,” Reese says. “We are not a dance studio. We’re a youth development program using dance as a vehicle for change.”
Small steps of progression are underway in the second-year modern dance class Bonfil teaches on Wednesday afternoons. She stops the class and methodically breaks down the choreography. Then she pops a surprise on the students.
“Move like you’re pancake batter on the floor,” she says. Ponytails swish as the students glide and float across the floor, some easing onto the floor. Then Bonfil returns her students to the choreographed steps. She smiles and nods with approval.
“Think back to about 120 seconds ago and the quality in your body. See what happens when you relax? The more relaxed you are, the better you’re going to be able to move. That’s something you can use in life, too. If you’re in school and taking a stressful test, it’s going to help you to know how to do that,” says Bonfil, who earned her BFA in theatre and dance.
Portillo can attest to the lasting value of such lessons. She loves dance, but did not study it at Chapman. On concert nights for The Wooden Floor, she’s happy to volunteer backstage braiding the dancers’ hair. She knows well how small acts of kindness and support add up, leading step by step to a promising future.