by Seth Sandronsky
photo by Nick Shockey
In Sacramento’s tree-laden Tahoe Park neighborhood, Heather Singleteary is teaching the next generation of dancers. A single mom, lithe and lively, she launched the nonprofit Balance Dance Project just before the pandemic struck and changed things in ways big and small.
“I was beginning the journey of keeping my prior studio alive, but on my own,” Singleteary says. She had previously co-helmed the BlyueRose Dance Project in Oak Park with twin sister, Holly. The duo of working women had danced jazz, ballet, salsa and modern since the age of six. But that studio closed when BDP opened in early 2020.
Teaching dance to local youth as people sheltered in place “was scary and unpredictable,” Singleteary says. “I knew an artistic outlet was still necessary during these times and the world was looking for balance. My daughter said that and it stuck. She said we need ‘balance in everything, and your studio should represent just that.’”
Balance Dance Project serves youth ages 8 to 14. The teachers labor for next to nothing, Singleteary says. Call it altruism to the community. The nonprofit has a mission to “make dance accessible to all” — a critical need considering participation in sports and other physical activities among low-income youth is far less than among their affluent peers.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found stark contrasts in this sports gap — with 70% of children with incomes above $105,000 having participated in sports in 2020, and only 31% for families at or below the poverty line.
Singleteary keeps tuition costs as low as possible for working parents to keep their children enrolled, but she says keeping her nonprofit afloat is a struggle as inflation and a general rise in prices make it tough to make ends meet. BDP received a grant from the City of Sacramento to build an outdoor dance floor near the studio during the pandemic. However, the floor blew down during a winter 2021 storm.
On a recent Saturday, Singleteary students gather on the dance floor. She is firm with her students. “You’re not stretching,” Singleteary says to a young dancer. “You are just sitting on your leg.» The dancer self-corrects with no further prompts; her students seem to respect their instructor.
Such props extend to parents. Valerie Barragan is a big fan of Singleteary and the five other BDP teachers. “We could not ask for a better woman than Heather to teach our kids along with the other teachers,” says Barragan, a Meadowview resident and the mother of Haley, a 9-year-old dance student. Haley’s self-confidence has soared since she began lessons at the BDP, Barragan says.
That change is in part a result of Haley and the other BDP dancers performing in venues before crowds around the Sacramento region. BDP students perform at an annual dance recital at Rosemont High School. There are also dance performances for galas at the Urban Hive and West Sacramento Community Center. And they recently did a video shoot during a Sacramento Proud event before a Kings game at the Golden 1 Center. “I can’t wait for us to perform at halftime,” Singleteary says.
Singleteary says her dance classes are inventive and energetic, and require athleticism. “We have a lot of fun but we also work really hard, especially as the dancers progress in their ability,” she says. “We have a good mix of technical and classic dance classes that will prepare dancer[s] for a long-lasting dance journey, combined with our version of fun and popular classes that are designed to let [them] express themselves and just have a good time.”
Singleteary teaches her young charges much more than dance moves: Self-image matters. “She has the kids do self-acclamations in the mirror to teach them that they are beautiful, smart and to be comfortable in their skins,” Barragan says.
Haley attends dance classes five days a week and her mom says the teachers act as great role models. “In this day and age where you can’t send your children out to play,” says her mom, “dance is a form of exercise, while at the same time students are learning technique without being stuck in the house on electronics.”
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.