Lena Smallwood practices dance Monday through Saturday, but one day she was practicing a port de bras at the barre and everything just clicked. A basic ballet move used to develop gracefulness in dancers' arm movements made Smallwood realize this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

"The way I move my head and my arms, I knew that I wanted to do it forever," Smallwood said. 

Despite practicing 16 hours a week, Smallwood still spent this Sunday learning modern dance from Emily Schoen Branch. Branch previously was a dancer at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City, leaving to open her own dance studio. Her class is one of a three-part master class series put on by Kern Dance Alliance and Garden Pathways: Arts + Mentoring.

Smallwood said she was eager to learn anything new about dancing, even if she looks dumb doing it. She's not alone: girls ages 10-18 gave up their weekend plans, one even traveling from Palmdale, to learn Branch's style of modern dance at Garces Memorial High School.

Taylor Cheney, 14, said to excel in dancing, you can't just stick with one teacher: "You have to mush it all together and be the best you can be."

Cheney pointed out that the modern dance Branch was teaching emphasized style rather than the technical aspect of modern dance  to which she is accustomed.

The Kern Dance Alliance partners with 87 dance studios in the county to help young dancers hone their skills. Master classes and intensives are like SAT and ACT prep classes for those interested in becoming serious about dance.

With dancing, a lot of it is who you know, said Andrea Hansen, president of Kern Dance Alliance. It's crucial for dancers to be able to put names like Branch's on their resume listing professionals with whom they've worked.

Getting to learn from professionals like Branch is inspiring in itself. They're hearing her life story and how she navigated into a prestigious dance company, Hansen said.

It's not all about glitz and glory, though. "I'm a product of dance in Bakersfield and I know how it can change peoples' lives," Hansen said.

She created Kern Dance Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, in 2015 with the sole goal of supporting dance in Kern County. That goal has extrapolated into a variety of programs.

Hansen strives to create a positive environment through dance and KDA, no matter the program. Smallwood almost quit dance because of bullying, but through the support of her new studio and Kern Dance Alliance, her confidence and love for dance has skyrocketed.

"I used to feel awkward because I was the only dark skin person, but now I'm so comfortable and I like that it makes me stand out," she said. 

This past summer Smallwood attended dance intensive in San Francisco made possible by a scholarship from Kern Dance Alliance. 

"I didn't think anything would come from it," Smallwood said. "But it's so great knowing that this community has my back." 

Hansen said KDA's goal isn't just helping dancers progress into working at dance companies, but "helping build an appreciation for an art form and use it as a vehicle."

Evidence of that is in KDA's initiatives like Shine for Girls: Math + Dance = Success and Books in Motion, and it is even starting a program with Alzheimer's and dance. Books in Motion encourages literacy in readers by pairing choreography with a story like "Where the Wild Things Are." Similarly, Math + Dance = Success teaches probability and statistics with dancing. 

"It's not just about the blood, sweat and tears for a performance," Hansen said. "It's about helping people and transforming lives through dance."

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