Dance program flourishing at A.G. High

Alex Gallegos, 18, has been taking dance at Arroyo Grande High School since the ninth grade and has been in the Dance Company there since his sophomore year.

“We’re like a big family ... all helping each other,” he said. When he was a freshman, everything was new, and he was shy. “Dance helped me come out of my shell. ... You can’t be shy performing on stage.”

“Ms. Sims is always there to help us out. ... She cares about the students,” he added. Alex was referring to Debby Sims-Sagisi, the dance teacher who began the dance program in 1990 and who will retire this spring.

The students are preparing for their two big performances May 6 and 7, called “Past and Present,” in honor of Amber Carter, the dance captain and aide to Sims-Sagisi who died of cancer in 1999.

Amber’s mother, Janine Carter, established a scholarship program for dance students, which is funded partly by the upcoming performances. The students do their own teaching and choreography, while Sims-Sagisi monitors and directs.

During my visit, the students danced “A Novelty Dance,” to the song “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s, choreographed by 11th-grader Kendall Holley. The students will dress up in 1980s fashions for the performance.

Three sections of the group danced different pieces at the same time, then came together at the end with legs kicking, arms reaching high, hips rolling and students down on the floor and jumping back up. The lively music made me want to kick up my heels, too.

Each student brings his or her own story. Carli Richardson-Goss, 18, has been involved with dance since fifth grade and takes after her mother, who was a dancer in Sacramento.

She loves the creative part of choreographing dances and helping younger students.

“You grow as a family by the end of the year,” she said. “I feel lucky to be here for four years.” Carli choreographed “Diva,” which will be presented at the performance.

Jillian Clark, 18, the current dance captain, has been dancing since age 4, starting at the Studio of Performing Arts in the Village. She has been training for six years at her parents’ dance studio, the Dellos Performing Arts Center in Grover Beach.

“What I love the most is a wide variety of people here,” she said. “There’s a real family feel. ... Everyone inspires each other. ... (We) push each other to (the) limit and make sure everyone can reach their dream.”

Jillian will be auditioning in July to be a Laker Girl and for Stiletto Entertainment, both in Los Angeles, and has signed a contract at DDO Talent Agency, where she will be dancing as a professional.

As 11th-grader Michael Delby was choreographing a piece called “Heads Will Roll,” a song by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, two boys were practicing their breakdancing skills in the back of the room.

They belong to a breakdancing group called Proper Technique with six other male dancers and were “high” because they had just won third place in the school talent show the previous night.

Alex loves the challenge of learning the techniques; then when you “get it, you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot,” he said.

Sims-Sagisi herself grew up dancing ballet in Santa Maria. She majored in physical education, and taught that first, but in 1980, she started teaching in Dance Kaleidoscope in the gym. She got the football team involved by inviting them to the before-school dance class, when they had a practice. They danced to Motown soul songs.

From the beginning, Sims-Sagisi wanted the dance program to not be a competition, so that anyone could participate.

She discourages gossip, strives to nip problems in the bud and asks students to come to her to talk things out. She ended with, “I have loved every minute of this program, and to get up every morning and do what I love, I am so grateful.”

For tickets to the “Past and Present” performances at 7 p.m. on May 6 and 7 at the Clark Center, contact the school Activities Office at 474-3200 for $8 tickets, or pay at the door for $10 each.