Hanging by a thread.
That’s how Sky-Marie McDonald describes the state of her nonprofit youth dance program, Wild Rivers Coast Foundation for Dance, after she was handed a 30-day lease termination notice by the landlord of her studio last month.
“The studio isn’t behind on rent, we paid faithfully through the pandemic even when we had to close down and couldn’t utilize the space,” said McDonald. “I was told by the property manager that the landlord wants more money and has other plans for the building.”
McDonald founded Wild Rivers Conservatory of Dance in 2015, after moving to Brookings from Texas. The next year, she created the Wild Rivers Coast Foundation for Dance nonprofit. The nonprofit organization was formed to help further promote dance outreach and education along the southern Oregon Coast.
McDonald has an extensive professional background and offers classes in a variety of disciplines, including ballet, modern, tap and other styles. She teaches toddlers through high schoolers and even adults. McDonald teaches classes year-round, creates two major shows yearly and also brings in other professional guest dancers and teachers on a seasonal basis.
“I had plans to bring in a dancer from the Rockettes this summer, and another from the New York City Ballet, to work with our local dancers. I’m not sure that will happen now because I have to move the studio quickly,” she said.
Korinne Luis has been dancing with McDonald since she was 10 years-old. Now 16, Luis looked up to the older dancers when she started, but now she is stepping into a big sister role at the studio.
“These guys are my family and this place is like my home,” said Luis. “I came here a year after I first moved here, and this was the place that I felt like I really had friends, and felt like I belonged here.”
Sometimes, Luis said she is at the studio seven days a week. She said she can’t imagine not having a safe place to come and express herself.
After McDonald’s longtime landlord passed away, the studio and other adjacent properties went up for sale. She said the new owner has been increasing rents since they purchased it last year, and then, her month-to-month lease was terminated with only a month’s notice.
Now, McDonald said she is hunting for a new space, but she hasn’t yet found anything affordable that also fits their needs as a studio. At their current space, they have a large dance room and room for costume and prop creation and storage. Not to mention, it’s within walking distance from the middle and high schools.
“The location has been perfect for us. A lot of kids walk from school, and it’s kind of the neighborhood hangout, too,” said McDonald. “It’s just kind of a safe, friendly, creative space... I get a random boy here and there who will just come in and want to join a class.”
McDonald said she never turns them away; boys are welcome, too.
“I have about a dozen boys enrolled,” said McDonald, “which is great for a town like this.”
Dance moms Jessica Eichlin and Bonnie Ell are especially concerned about losing the studio because there are few youth programs for the creative arts in this area.
Ell and her daughter Sarai were introduced to McDonald and Wild Rivers Dance through a “Parent and Tot” dance class six years ago. The now 8-year-old Sarai has been coming ever since.
“This definitely just provides this sort of cultural diversity and opportunity for artistic expression that we just don’t have elsewhere, there’s no other dance studio in all of Curry County, and certainly not one that’s run by a professionally trained dancer,” said Ell.
Eichlin and her daughter Brooke only recently moved to Brookings, and discovered Wild Rivers Dance shortly after.
“I’ve always been a passionate person about dance and theatre. Kids need a creative outlet, and I was just so happy that this was here...and this is the only spot,” said Eichlin.
Wild Rivers Dance puts on a couple of major productions throughout the year, including an annual rendition of “The Nutcracker,” which can draw-in audiences of nearly 1,000. Due to the pandemic, they did not perform “The Nutcracker” last year, but made a full-length movie instead. From clips, it looks like a professionally acted and produced film, essentially made by McDonald and her students. McDonald said the film will be screened in Brookings soon. Their most recent show was in spring, “The Celebration of Hope.” For that performance, McDonald said she had 76 dancers on stage.
McDonald said many dancers in her program have gone on to pursue dance at a higher level.
“This may be a small town, but my students fit right in when they travel to dance in other intensive programs, such as at Eugene Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, and my past students have been competitive enough to get into some really good college dance programs. I’ve been very proud of that,” she said.
If Wild Rivers Dance goes away, Korinne, Sarai, Brooke and many other dancers may not just be losing a second home, but a rare opportunity in a small town to express themselves and pursue their dreams.