When Marcos Diaz was 14, he’d never thought about becoming a professional dancer. That is, until he enrolled in the Anaheim Ballet’s STEP UP! Program.
“I started about 16 years ago in the STEP UP! outreach program,” Marcos said. “It’s actually a funny story. My family went to go get haircuts at a salon across from the [Anaheim Ballet], and my mom got into conversations with the hairdresser who said that her daughter was in dance classes there. Originally it was just my sisters who started dancing in STEP UP!, but I kind of had to tag along like big brothers do. I took my first ballet class in jeans.”
The STEP UP! program serves students ages 8-19 in Anaheim, Calif. who can’t afford the sometimes-steep cost of dance classes and gear. “STEP UP! offers classical ballet classes for underserved youth in the Anaheim area, but it’s not just about dance,” said Larry Rosenberg, director of the Anaheim Ballet. “It’s a call to excellence. Dance can mean a great deal more than the actual movement to those that are involved. When they find something in it, they find that they can access inner nobility, and they can raise their standards of excellence in every area of their life.”
He didn’t know it when he started that first ballet class, but Marcos had found his call to excellence in STEP UP!. “Sarma Rosenberg, Larry’s wife, actually came in and watched one of the classes, and she kept me after,” Marcos remembered. “She said, ‘hey, can I see your turn out?’ I showed her, and she said, ‘You have some potential. Do you want to take some other classes?’” The Anaheim Ballet created a scholarship for Marcos to take hip hop classes that would help him hone his natural skills
Sixteen years later, Marcos still takes classes at the Anaheim Ballet, but he’s also made dance into a career: “I’m a dance performer and a trainer at Disneyland,” he said. “I started there as soon as I graduated from high school.” In conjunction with years of training and dedication to his craft, Marcos attributes his success to STEP UP!. “If I didn’t come to the studio, if I didn’t start dancing, I wouldn’t have met my friends, my friends who I call family, or found my career path. I wouldn’t have started without that funny incident [at the salon], if we didn’t get our haircut, if I didn’t decide to take a hip hop class.”
Students like Marcos rely on STEP UP! not just for extracurricular activities, but for social connection and a feeling of belonging. “There’s a community of people [in STEP UP!] that want to get better, that want to improve,” Larry said. “It becomes almost like a family. So when COVID-19 suddenly said, ‘You’re not going to go into the studio anymore,’ it was rather a shock.”
Like most performing arts studios, the Anaheim Ballet and all of its outreach programs had to move from in-person lessons to virtual ones for the majority of 2020. With some students putting lessons on pause and fewer events to bring in donations, funding for the nonprofit ballet company started to dry up. “Everyone was struggling to stay afloat, and most people were stuck at home,” Larry said. “It was a difficult time. A lot of our income is based upon tuition and donations, and those all drastically cut. Luckily, U.S. Bank has pretty much always been a friend to the Anaheim Ballet.”
Rockette Ewell, U.S. Bank Community Affairs Manager for Southern California, has worked with Larry and the Anaheim Ballet for years, facilitating charitable donations from the bank to fund programming like STEP UP!. “Support for the Anaheim Ballet didn’t begin during COVID-19,” Rockette said. “While the program itself is about dance and ballet, it is also about citizenship, self-discipline, academic focus, and really looking beyond where you are today to where you want to be. It is an impressive community of support and love, really, for the students that are part of it.”
When Rockette and her U.S. Bank team saw that dwindling tuition couldn’t keep the Anaheim Ballet afloat, they expedited this year’s grant award to the organization and expanded the constraints a normal charitable donation might have. “We said, ‘you can use those funds for general operating support, because we understand this is an unprecedented situation, and your work with young people is even more important now than ever,’” Rockette said. “U.S. Bank also approved and funded their two SBA Paycheck Protection Program loans.”
That expanded funding meant the Anaheim Ballet could continue operating through the pandemic. “U.S. Bank’s team showed an interest in the community, and in us,” Larry said. “They even offered board members from U.S. Bank to Anaheim Ballet to help us with leadership.”
Today, most regular programming at the Anaheim Ballet is back up and running — STEP UP! included. “ It was great to be able to provide support when the community was in particular need,” Rockette said. “Like Larry and Marcos said: For the students the ballet serves, it’s more than just dance.”
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