.How Motion Pacific Revolutionized Dance in Santa Cruz

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter months of renovations, Motion Pacific Dance Studio welcomed hundreds of excited visitors on Jan. 17, 1998. They were asked to leave their shoes at the door, and a few pairs quickly turned into a mountain of hundreds of shoes. Those who couldn’t get in overflowed into the parking lot or peered in through the window.

“We had no idea how much interest it had generated,” Motion Pacific co-founder Molly Heaster said of the new studio. “When we had our grand opening, we had over 700 people show up. It was crazy. I was hiding in the office. We thought, ‘Oh god, our brand new sprung Canadian maple floors—we should have people not wear their shoes!’ It was unbelievable.”

Before opening, the building needed new bathrooms, showers and ceilings. Perhaps the most memorable renovation, Heaster says, was installing fire sprinklers, since it involved an entirely new waterline installation that spanned across the street.

“The city made us pay for it,” she remembers. “It was $17,000, and every time I pass that section I feel like that’s my waterline.”

Twenty years, two locations and a new waterline later, Motion Pacific has bloomed into much more than just a dance studio. It’s a community space. The studio offers more than 1,500 dance classes annually and more than 20 dance workshops while hosting annual events like Santa Cruz Dance Week, the Stockings Cabaret, the Incubator Project and the max10 performance laboratory to bring the community together around dance and dialogue.

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After the All The Right Moves dance studio unexpectedly closed in the mid-’90s, many local dancers and performers were without work and a place to practice. Together, Heaster, Carmela Woll and Greg Favor opened Motion Pacific to fill the creative hole and provide a permanent place to embrace dance of all kinds, for all ages.

Motion Pacific has always been a dance melting pot. Even early on, the ambitious class schedule listed ballet, belly dancing, tap, jazz and, of course, hip-hop and breakdancing. Motion Pacific’s original building, now the Sherwin Williams paint store, was right next door to the Santa Cruz Dance Gallery—today known as the 418 Project. Together, Motion Pacific and the 418 were like a downtown dance hub, each establishing a rich legacy of dance and arts in Santa Cruz.

“Dance has the potential to push us to go deeper. It can provide us an opportunity to cultivate community engagement, self-reflection and expression, compassion and human connection,” says current Motion Pacific Director Abra Allan. “I believe that people feel that potential when they are in the studio, or in the street for Dance Week, and that’s what attracts people to Motion Pacific and keeps people coming back.”


Dropping the Boom

Motion Pacific was the foundation for much of the breakdancing and hip-hop movement in the ’90s. Local dancer and Motion Pacific instructor Gary Kendell founded the Boom Squad, a dance group made up of seven members (including Woll and Heaster) learning hip-hop and synchronized breakdancing—something not at all common at the time, especially for girls.

Motion Pacific dancer and instructor Melissa C. Wiley teaches youth classes. PHOTO: CRYSTAL BIRNS
Motion Pacific dancer and instructor Melissa C. Wiley teaches youth classes. PHOTO: CRYSTAL BIRNS

“People understand hip-hop now as independent from what they did at that time,” Heaster says. “Back then, hip-hop was associated with a lot of negativity, and gangster rap. People would say, ‘Isn’t it promoting guns and violence?’ And we would say no, there’s a lot more to it than that.”

The Boom Squad performed around the Bay Area, frequently holding shows in Santa Cruz. They were wildly popular and won awards for their performances. Kendell left Motion Pacific and the Boom Squad a couple of years after it opened and went on to create the Jabbawockeez dance group before passing away in 2007. Many of the Boom Squad members went on to own their own studios, including David Bortnick, owner of Santa Cruz’s Pacific Arts Complex, and Ryan Curren, who owns Truckee Dance Factory.

True to the nature of Motion Pacific, Heaster says that there was also an educational and community aspect. There were often multiple other dance groups along with the Boom Squad, and Heaster recalls there being 13 different groups at one point, and members would often be part of more than one. She and other dancers would go to local schools, homeless children and women’s shelters and recovery centers to teach hip-hop and dance.

“One school we went to, there were weeks of parent protests and concerns and letters before we even got there,” Heaster recalls of the controversy around hip-hop in the late ’90s. “We went in and there were more parents and administrators in the room than there were children.”

Heaster says people were often surprised to learn about the positive message of their project.

“When we started the studio, we wanted a place to be able to dance, and I didn’t feel that hip-hop needed to be in a separate studio the way it had been,” Heaster says. “You’d find hip-hop classes in fitness studios and gyms, it wasn’t considered an art in the dance community. Now people understand that there are foundations just like in ballet and flamenco.”


The Bunheads and the Breakers

But Motion Pacific was founded as more than just a hip-hop dance studio. Heaster herself had been trained as a tap and ballet dancer, too, and the dozen or so teachers she hired came from various dance backgrounds and specialties.

I remember sitting in the first staff meeting and looking around the circle and being so impressed with the teachers and faculty they had,” says longtime ballet teacher, studio manager and Motion Pacific board member Rebecca Blair. “There were hip-hop, yoga, fitness, tap, jazz, and ballet teachers. It was a full plate, they had a huge plan to have everything at this one studio and they were really pursuing that.”

She explained that not many places offered strong teachers and classes across a broad range of dance at that time. It was new to have one place with everything from a high level of ballet and technical street dance to fitness classes for all ages.

“Molly and Carmela said their dream was that the bunheads and the breakers would warm up together in the same lobby, and it happened,” Blair recalls. “Within a couple weeks, I’m in a lobby with people that I otherwise had no access to know. That was such a sweet opening in my life, and I feel a responsibility to pass that onto my students.”


Incubating Talent

Motion Pacific quickly gained a high profile locally for the neo-burlesque Stockings Holiday Cabaret and the Santa Cruz Dance Week parade events where hundreds of dancers and spectators dance in the streets of downtown Santa Cruz. When Heaster was still the owner of Motion Pacific, she says the company was best known for its annual anniversary shows every January. Renowned artists came out for these shows, like Blanche Brown’s Afro-Haitian group, Christy Hernandez’s tap dance group, and Ballet Folklórico de México. Motion Pacific dancers would also participate in holiday parades and dance at the start of the AIDS Walk each year, where they would wake and warm up participants on chilly mornings.

Motion Pacific Molly Heaster (left) and Carmela Woll (right) founded Motion Pacific
Molly Heaster (left) and Carmela Woll (right) founded Motion Pacific with Greg Favor in 1998 as a dance studio for all ages and experience levels.

With community roots in mind, the studio has amped up its approach to inclusivity and giving back, especially to young choreographers and performers. Within the last five years, the newest introductions of the Incubator Project and max10 performances have given dancers and artists the opportunity to push the envelope and experiment outside of their comfort zone.

“That’s really a lot of what we have been spending our time doing since,” Allan says. “Building and sustaining a thriving educational program while building as much presenting opportunity for our artists locally and regionally as we can.”

The Incubator Project is a biannual residency program that caters to new and emerging choreographers and gives early stage dancers the opportunity and support to create a large-scale professional show over several months.

“The Incubator Project enabled me to further develop ideas that I had and put them into practice in ways that I didn’t know where possible,” says former Motion Pacific dancer and teacher Eli Weinberg, who was also one of the first people selected for the Incubator Project when it began. “I didn’t quite understand how to be making work in the community outside of that educational school setting, so there was a lot of learning about how you make performance work in the real world. That was really profound, to have that kind of support coming out of college.”

Weinberg’s show, “This Land is My Land,” involved at least six months of work integrating music, theater and dance into an hour-long historically based show that drew hundreds.

“I found this woven community at Motion Pacific, and it didn’t feel like you were necessarily sacrificing any other opportunities or spaces to be there,” Weinberg says. “I had a rich history of people who were investing in dance-making and teaching over a long period of time, and it almost felt like you were a step in a larger generation of what was going on.”

Around the same time, Motion Pacific adopted max10, a series of 10 short, 10-minute shows aimed at experimental new work. The “performance laboratory” idea was created in Venice, California by local choreographers David King and Cid Pearlman and brought to Santa Cruz, where the triannual show is wildly popular.

“These are opportunities for people to come and express their Santa Cruzness, express themselves, and do that with the support and connection to the larger audience and community,” says Cabrillo College Dance Department Chair and former Motion Pacific board member David King. This is the type of show, he says, that makes Motion Pacific such a unique gem within Santa Cruz.

“There has never been a time when there has been a greater need, and recognition of what’s different about dance and physicality,” King says. “We live in a swipe right/left world, but when we are face-to-face and in the room sweating together, it’s a very different way, a much richer way, of being with each other than through screens.”


Changing Hands

Under the stress of annual rent increases, the start of the recession, and a decrease in class enrollment, Motion Pacific moved to the Arts Center on Center Street in 2008. Now the Actors’ Theatre location, it was the only place Heaster could find at the time. It was comparably much smaller and didn’t have a sprung floor. It was a temporary solution to their problems, but Motion Pacific lost some teachers and students because of it.

After the move, Heaster was the last of the three co-founders to bow out. She didn’t want the studio to close after 11 years, so she made a short list of people she trusted. Allan remembers getting a call from Heaster out of the blue, asking if she would take over Motion Pacific.

“I had no idea Molly was thinking about letting it go,” Allan says. “It was a pretty quick yes for me—it wasn’t on the phone call that I said yes; in my head I was like, ‘No, you cannot say yes immediately when somebody asks that.’”

Allan took over Motion Pacific as the owner and director in the fall of 2009. She made getting out of the temporary space an immediate priority, and began searching for new locations. After looking at a couple of other downtown spots, the current 4,000-square-foot space (originally a Yellow Cab storage building) in The Mill became available. Framed by auto body shops and car dealers, the industrial area and proximity to downtown was a perfect place to relocate.

“It was a monster project,” Allan says. “Start with the idea of what people say about a kitchen remodel and multiply it by 100.”

The new facility opened just over a year later in the spring of 2011. Allan also moved to have the company become a nonprofit organization, allowing for more contributed income and restructuring the organization of Motion Pacific to include a board of directors. The studio was able to operate previously under a fiscal sponsorship umbrella of Dancers Group San Francisco, though nonprofit status has since allowed them to move into their own fiscal support system.

Along with the financial shift, Allan envisioned the studio as a more performance based elements, since she says there was a definite lack of dance performances in town.

“Once we were at this facility, it became about starting to build and present programming,” Allan says. “There was a lot of discussions with my advisory board about presenting programs that supported artists at every level of their development, both people that had never performed and people that had been performing for decades.”


Staying Long Term

It’s no secret that rent and the high cost of living in Santa Cruz often drives out some of the best and brightest, and the dance community is no exception. The cost of living in Santa Cruz is more than double the national average, and Allan says Motion Pacific has lost many teachers and artists because of it. In the last five years of the Incubator Project, Allan says all of the participants have left town after completing their residency and relocated to begin a professional career.

“Of course our job is to incubate and support artists wherever they decide to go, and really the end game is to support artists to live and work here locally in Santa Cruz,” she says. “The cost of living is something that is discussed constantly.”

Interestingly, the cost of living hasn’t deterred other creative outlets from opening. Allan says that though the number of studios has gone up, the number of potential young dancers is going down because of the comparatively high cost of raising a family in Santa Cruz.

“Since we opened this space in 2011, we have had two new studios open within a mile and a half of us,” Allan says. “We are having to take that into consideration and find our niche while honoring our history.”

Though Santa Cruz is an expensive place to live, it’s also recognized as a creative hub of the Bay Area. Motion Pacific has always been a valuable resource for UCSC and Cabrillo dancers, since the performance options are more limited in college. Between Motion Pacific, the 418 Project, the Tannery and much more, Santa Cruz is an attractive creative destination, if you can afford it.

We aren’t interested in just presenting dance,” Allan says. “We want the impact to be bigger.”

For more information about Motion Pacific, visit their website at motionpacific.com.

In celebration of 20 years, Motion Pacific will be announcing free community classes, family dance parties and special performances throughout the year.

Feb. 3 Scott Wells & Dancers

Feb. 22 max10

Feb. 23 E&C Dance

Feb. 25 Junior Company Solo Show

March 16, 17 Incubator Artists, OVA

April 19 Dance Week Kick Off

May 19 Spring Showcase at the Civic Auditorium

June 2 Teen and Junior Company Self Produced Show

July TBA. CabaGay—A benefit for Motion Pacific and the diversity center

Dec. 13, 14, 15 Stockings Cabaret



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