Pavel Machuca Zavarzina
Mallory Morrison, Brooks Institute of Photography

Each year in Santa Barbara, a group of teenagers with dreams of lives as professional choreographers get a chance to learn what it takes in On the Verge: Teen Choreographers’ Showcase, presented by the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance.

This year, 15 pre-professional teen choreographers, each guided by a professional mentor, will show their work Saturday evening at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. Those who participate must be between 13 and 19 years old and are required to have at least two years of dance training.

Program director Heather Carney Shea recently got her BFA in Dance from UCSB. “Working with the teens is like being a parent,” she said. “You want them to succeed, and they have so much passion. But on the other hand, they’re teenagers and aren’t always the most responsible or accountable, and they’re certainly not experienced at what it takes to put together a production like this.”

Shea and SBDA executive director Julie McLeod insist on working directly with the young choreographers, not their parents. They require the teens to take responsibility for casting their pieces, setting rehearsals, creating their costuming and lighting, choosing their music, writing biographies and press releases, and selling advertising for the program. Teens attend workshops on choreography, music, costumes, and lighting, and each one chooses a mentor from the dance community to guide them through the process.

“It’s all a learning process for the kids,” said McLeod. “When they come to us and say, ‘I’m going to be a professional dancer and choreographer,’ we say, ‘Okay, would you like to learn what that means?'”

Educational Director Jackie Rotman is a seasoned teen choreographer with years of involvement in On the Verge. She leads the program’s educational component, a workshop where teens learn how to give presentations on their dances, speaking in schools, after-school programs, and senior centers about their training and choreographic process.

Among this year’s young artists is Daniela Zerme±o, who has danced in every Teen Choreographers’ Showcase since she was six and has been presenting her work in the show since she qualified at age 13. Now 19, she has her own studio where she teaches flamenco to 50 students, ages three to adult. The Dance Alliance recently honored Zerme±o’s accomplishments by naming her Teen Dancer of the Year.

“Daniela is a phenomenal flamenco dancer and she does dynamite choreography,” said Shea. “I love her sense of style.”

Pavel Machuca Zavarzina is a freshman dance major at UCSB. A first-timer in the showcase, he started dancing just three years ago. He will be dancing a solo he created under the mentorship of UCSB dance faculty member Nancy Colahan. “I have been very inspired by Nancy, and working with Heather and Julie has been wonderful,” he said. “It’s a very community-oriented kind of thing.”

High school senior Tenaya Cowsill has been dancing since she was three. In recent years she has been studying ballet and modern more intensively and creating her own choreography. She will start at UCSB as a dance major next year. “It’s really cool because you have the guidance and input of the directors,” she said. “But it’s also very independent because you have to do everything on your own. I know my choreography has come a long way. Last year I learned about a lot of the technical stuff; this year I’m practicing the skills I’ve learned.”

Fifteen-year-old Sarah Friedland performed last year in On The Verge, but this is the first time she’s showing her work. Her contemporary jazz piece is set on seven dancers, including her, and is inspired by the situation of women in Darfur. “I read an article on it and was really drawn to the subject,” she said. “I wanted to voice what’s going on, since most people my age don’t really know about it. The main thing I’ve gotten from this experience is that it’s a really professional show, so it gives us a taste of what it’s actually like in the dance world.”

“I love challenging the kids into their next step,” McLeod said. “We all know that creativity can be a frightening place, and they’ve got to be brave and take a risk. When they take that leap, then they’ve reached a new level. That’s what gets me excited about working with the kids.”


The Santa Barbara Dance Alliance presents On the Verge on Saturday, May 31, at Marjorie Luke Theatre at 8 p.m. For tickets or more information, visit or call 966-6950.


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