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Dance is the hidden language of the soul, so says celebrated American dancer Martha Graham. Where words might fail, movement and music can express beauty and joy… and even, in the case of Irvine Valley College student Sabrina Campaña, become a career calling.

“I’ve always been into dance since I was around five,” says Campaña, whose roots are in hip-hop. She started as a business major at the College, but when she saw posters for a dance audition, she couldn’t resist.

By the time she was admitted to IVC’s Performing Dance Ensemble, a group of advanced dancers that performs across the state and the country, she was hooked. She chose a double-major in business and dance and never looked back. For Campaña, the best part of dancing her way through college was creating a solid community to help her thrive.

“I was on a team before IVC, but it didn’t feel like a family to me,” she recalls. “So, when I met other dancers who had the same passion and interest as me, I really felt welcomed.”

As a third-semester PDE member, Campaña’s dance card is typically full. The tight-knit ensemble spends every Friday together, from nine in the morning until about six or seven at night, in addition to intensive weekend rehearsals. It takes dedication and tireless effort to perfect her modern, ballet, and fusion dancing while also staying on top of her homework. But for Campaña, the sheer joy and camaraderie make it worth the constant pirouettes.

The ensemble operates like a small dance company, regularly traveling to the American College Dance Association Conference for four days of immersive learning and performances. This year, Campaña performed one adjudicated and two informal pieces at the conference while networking with students and teachers from all over the country.

“It’s great for our students because there are four-year colleges and graduate programs there,” says Campaña’s professor Jennifer La Curan, Chair of Dance at Irvine Valley College.

Students like Campaña choose from 180 different classes taught by various university instructors. The program also maintains connections with local shows and festivals, affording unique opportunities for live performance and learning. Last spring, Campaña participated in the Palm Springs International Dance Festival, where artists from all around the world gathered to teach master classes.

“The gentleman who puts that on was actually one of our guest artists in the fall semester,” says La Curan. “So, Sabrina got to work with him and was in his piece.”

For Campaña, who plans to transfer to either UC Irvine or Cal State Fullerton after completing the IVC program, connections like these are invaluable.

“I feel like he would be someone who I could keep reaching out to if I needed help,” she says about her collaborator.

In fact, the PDE regularly works with guest artists, during weekend sessions, to help the group prepare pieces for its recurring semester show. Working with professionals who are well-known in the field has not only exposed Campaña to diverse dancing styles but has also enriched her network since most guest artists have dance companies for which she might one day audition.

“It’s really good to know those people,” says Campaña, who tends to encounter the same guest artists repeatedly at the PDE’s various conferences and performances. “You build those relationships with them.”

The traveling group also performs for community audiences, including nursing homes and benefits, and even presents demos for local high schools. Last Fall, Campaña served as a student assistant for the annual high school dance day. As part of the experience, she helped with classes, performed, and answered audience questions, all with the mission of inspiring the next generation of dance lovers.

“We keep our dancers really busy,” says La Curan, who notes that most professional dancers are not only performing but also doing outreach and fundraisers. “So, we try to give them [students] that same opportunity, so they know what it would be like in the professional world.”

IVC program grads go on to a variety of careers in professional dance and beyond:  working for Disney, collaborating in commercial and retail performances, doing choreography, and even teaching.

“I always tell students, it doesn’t have to look like one pathway,” says La Curan. “Just because you don’t make it to American Ballet Theater doesn’t mean you don’t make a career out of dance.”

For Campaña, the plan is to choreograph a career in which performance and business make perfect dance partners. With her double major in business and dance, she plans to keep performing, with an eye on the dream of one day opening her own studio, auditioning for companies, and trying out commercial dance.

She’s also interested in exploring choreography itself, a passion that was sparked this semester after she crafted a large-scale dance project about the passage of time. “I did learn a lot … trying to come up with new material every week.”

Reflecting on her time at IVC, Campaña says she was very shy when she entered the program two years ago. Now nearing graduation, she says she’s gained the confidence to perform with style and swagger, whether it be sur les pointes, stag leaps, or scooby-doos. In part, she credits IVC instructor Raul Cruz, who she says “definitely pushed me to get the performance you want, go and show who you are on stage, and don’t be shy.”

“Early on, it was obvious she had great talent and skills,” says Cruz, who quickly recognized Campaña’s dedicated and work ethic. He knew she was up to the challenge of going even further, often asking, “If you think you’re giving it everything you’ve got, what happens if you try a little bit more?” 

And when Campaña went the extra mile and pushed through her limits, he says, “She started to better understand herself, her body, and dance in general … and that’s what starts to separate a novice dancer from an artistic one.”

Campaña’s talent and persistence made her an ideal candidate to help pioneer the school’s new aerial dance courses. For the former wallflower, dancing in mid-air, hanging from silks, hoops, and hammocks suspended from the ceiling, helped her courage soar.

“I loved how it changed me as a dancer,” says the airborne artist. “I learned to be more confident and fearless.”

It’s an exhilarating experience that’s exclusive to IVC.

“We are the only community college that has an aerial dance program,” says La Curan, adding that a unique certificate is in the works. From Cirque du Soleil to Vegas performances, it’s an extremely popular dance form and should serve Campaña well in her repertoire.

“Sabrina has discovered how being shy doesn’t mean that you can’t express yourself,” says the professor, who will miss her “gem” of a student when she graduates this spring. But La Curan hopes that, like many of her alums who go on to launch dance careers, Campaña might one day return to her alma mater as a guest artist.

“I’ve grown so much in the past couple of years,” says Campaña, who is grateful for her teachers and mentors who always encouraged her to do more. After all, she never thought she could be a student choreographer, leading rehearsals and teaching others — let alone dancing in the air. “That was really cool that I was able to feel confident enough to do that.”