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Sun, July 05

Local ballet program<br>has seen growth in past 6 years

It was six years ago when Sonja Rojas put up a few posters to see if any children would have an interest in ballet. Fifteen kids signed up as the former train entertainer rented space at the local rec center.

Hannah Littleboy performs for the ballet company. Students like Littleboy could benefit from the organization's opportunities for scholarships.

"The program has grown from 15 kids to what it is now," said Rojas, who has had 272 students in those six years. "One of the things I like best is when I hear from the kids. I still get letters and drawings from students who are still dancing."

Rojas currently has 62 students involved with dancing through her programs at the rec center. Of those, 35 are children and 27 are adults, which includes seven in a tap class taught by Dawn O’Sickey.

"Dawn and I feel the more the dancers in the community work together, the stronger we will be," said Rojas, who lives at Grand Canyon with husband Joe, a motorcoach tour driver with Xanterra. "I am a lifer at Grand Canyon. I plan to retire here. I plan to be here with dedication to this program and the community that is here."

In a community of only a few thousand people, it’s uncommon to find such a high-quality dance program offered to its youth. Rojas is a trained dancer and she speaks energetically about passing on those skills to her students.

"In all the years I have taught ballet, I feel this community service is pivotal to the future of those children who want to pursue college from a different angle," Rojas said. "These girls can go to college and get dance scholarships. I feel really fortunate to have such a group of talented kids here. I feel really blessed as a teacher."

Forty percent of the dancers in Rojas’ ballet classes are minorities — Native American or Hispanic. That type of participation, combined with the number of scholarships available to that segment of the student population, leads to definite possibilities when it comes to a secondary education for local minorities.

The rest of the dancers also have chances to continue in the art after coming out of Rojas’ program. As artistic director, she puts her students through realistic audition training. In other words, students in the ballet program have to actually put on a number and audition to become a company member.

Students put on several performances each year and even benefit from guest dancers, such as the annual visit from the principle dancer at Ballet Arizona. This year, a Russian dancer will visit to teach a specialized style.

Last year, the dancers worked for three weeks with five girls from Northern Arizona University’s prepatory school. Four of those dancers appeared in last summer’s Performing Arts Festival.

Through the first five years, Rojas ran both the ballet academy and the nonprofit ballet company. But beginning just last month, the entire program has evolved into a nonprofit organization. Rojas said that designation will help the program obtain needed grants, as well as provide those scholarship opportunities for students.

The ballet classes are segmented into four levels, designated by assigned colors. The "rose" class includes students ages 4-7. The "violet" class has students ranging in age from 7-9. The "royal" class had kids ages 9-11. And the "emerald" class includes students from age 12-15.

Other activities include poynte class three times a week, two levels of jazz classes, the "Shake, Rattle and Roll" class which has drawn the interest of 20 locals and O’Sickey’s tap class.

The ballet company stays busy all year. Besides the Summer Performing Arts Festival, the kids also perform in the annual Christmas at the School of Charm production in December and in their spring concert in May. There are also several community events where the ballet kids will appear.

Current ballet company members include Sommer Silva, Hannah Littleboy, Jackie Wren and Lizzie Tobin, who are all soloists. Monique Streit, Kelsey Olsen, Natalie Martinez, Shannon Harris and Chloe Phillips are part of the Corps de Ballet. And young Kaitlyn Salas is a designated apprentice.

"I would like to see Grand Canyon ballet institutionalized in the park," Rojas said. "The children deserve it, the community deserves it. It’s so important that there is an arts training program available to these kids."

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