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The S.B. Questionnaire: Alana Tillim

Talking Dance and Mentorship with the Owner of Santa Barbara Dance Arts

Santa Barbara Dance Arts Owner and Director Alana Tillim. (October 29, 2019) | Credit: Paul Wellman

“Ironically, very little of my job has to do with dance,” Alana Tillim tells me. “It’s about resilience, grit, and self-expression.”  

Alana is the owner and director of Santa Barbara Dance Arts, the full-service studio on Cota Street that offers recreational and pre-professional classes as well as rental space for artists and events.  

“We use dance lessons to teach life lessons,” she explains passionately. “We prepare the next generation of dancers. You can create works about anxieties and life’s pressures. Art is what makes us human. You cannot download an app for that.”  

Alana is also the co-founder of the Arts Mentorship Program, which has given out over $200,000 in scholarships and provided more than 30,000 hours of affordable rehearsal space and support 1,000-plus dancers.  

“In a dance room, nothing separates us,” she says. “It equalizes us all. Nobody’s marginalized.”      

Alana is excited about this stage of her career. “I started so young,” reflects Alana, who’s owned Santa Barbara Dance Arts for 22 years, building the business while juggling a career in corporate marketing and political campaigning. “It’s been such a rewarding experience.”  

Alana was born and raised in Menlo Park and graduated in 1995 from Menlo-Atherton High, the alma mater of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. “I was involved in student government and was on my high school dance team,” she says. “I’ve always been somebody who’s done too much.”  

Her parents were also high achievers. Dad was a neurosurgeon and mom, who got an MBA from NYU, was the first female executive for The Film Company. “I was so scared they’d be disappointed,” she says. “They knew I needed to fly my own ship.”  

She’d always wanted to go to UCLA and go to law school, but while visiting, she found out she hated it. Instead, she fell in love with UCSB. “Complete strangers were saying hello to me,” she recalls. “Santa Barbara were my people.”  

She studied political science and history. She ran for office in student government. She also auditioned for the dance program and got in, but opted to instead take dance classes every quarter. 

At one of those classes, she met teacher Steve Lovelace and they connected. He’d founded the Santa Barbara Jazz Dance Academy, which would become Santa Barbara Dance Arts.  

At UCSB, she also met Das Williams through Campus Democrats and he introduced her to political campaigning. She worked for Walter and Lois Capps. After graduation, she was a field coordinator for Hannah-Beth Jackson. She also bartended at the Wildcat while co-running and growing Santa Barbara Dance Arts.  

“I added a different energy,” she explains. “I brought in hip-hop and jazz. We went from 50 students to 150 in six months. I was a woman, a strong female model.”

After the Wildcat burned down in 2000, Alana got a job doing marketing for Cox Communications. In 2003, the city’s Redevelopment Agency gave Santa Barbara Dance Arts a grant of $150,000, which allowed them to afford an 8,000-square-foot space in the Funk Zone. The following year, her boss at Cox encouraged her to take a risk, leave her day job, and focus on Santa Barbara Dance Arts full time.  

The year 2013 was a major milestone. She became the sole owner of Santa Barbara Dance Arts and, on the same day they started construction on their new East Cota Street home, Alana and her husband, Matt Grover, found out she was pregnant. 

“We got our occupancy permit on January 6, 2014,” she remembers. “Then I went on bed rest on the 8th and our son was born on February 27. It was such a challenge.”

Since then, it’s been steady growth and expansion. “I’ve always had a vision, but now I have the support,” she explains, “and that’s created a lot of exciting possibilities.” Alana is also a coach for a program called “More Than Just Great Dancing” and speaks to entrepreneurs, leaders, and youth to inspire their journeys.  

Her son, Jace, has become an inspiration. “I understood one day I wanted to be a parent and be involved in my child’s life,” says Alana. 

Alana Tillim answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

I had my beautiful son in the midst of the worst time of my life. I lost my father, I miscarried, and struggled to conceive for three years while fighting to keep my business intact. I didn’t get paid for two years, and had challenges with family and friendships just trying to survive. Honestly, I was the worst version of myself, and a lot of people doubted me. 

Despite this, I had a vision for my business and I knew I was put on this earth to be a mom. Then he came, my beautiful rainbow baby Jace. His name means healing and I look at where the studio is now and his continued growth and I am so proud. 

What is your most marked characteristic? 

Intense, fast, and passionate — my parents are Jewish and Sicilian Catholic New Yorkers.

What do you like most about your job? 

I love being the best part of a child’s day and seeing the joy on their parent’s faces. I love that I have created a space where kids feel like they belong, they matter, and they can leave happier than when they entered. I love helping generations of young girls build life skills, find confidence, and learn the gifts of self-expression through dance. After 22 years, I have alumni bringing their children to class and working for me. It is a wonderful tradition and it just keeps growing. 
What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Laying in bed with my son and my husband for a good snuggle, knowing that we have enough to get by, we have our health, and hopefully a trip or adventure to anticipate and a home we are happy to come home to.  
What is your greatest fear?
Watching someone I love hurt and not being able to take care of them.     
Who do you most admire?
My mentor, Misty Lown. She is a mother of five, dance studio owner, author, and entrepreneur. She has found a way to give me and thousands of others renewed purpose in our lives. Personally, she has helped me find balance with my personal health and family, become a better leader, while giving me the dream opportunity to share my entrepreneurial wisdom on the road as a speaker for More Than Just Great Dancing. 

What is your greatest extravagance?
Luxury travel and good sheets. 
What is your current state of mind?  

Fulfilled. I have a loving marriage, a kind and silly son, dynamic and caring friends, and a successful business that employs people I admire and adore. Each of these things allow me to live and work in the most beautiful place in the world.  
What is the quality you most like in people?  

Empathy, vulnerability, and witty intellect. I want people who bring something to the table to make life interesting. With a business and family, time is precious, so I want to spend time with people who are willing to go deeper than the average surface exchange and not take themselves to seriously. 
What is the quality you most dislike in people?  

Apathy, chronic negativity, ignorance, entitlement. Working with children, I see so many parents building entitled children by pulling them out when they don’t get what they want, instead of helping them learn the skills and tools necessary to grow. This breeds entitlement in a generation that is already struggling.

 What do you most value in friends?  

Loyalty, honesty, and vulnerability. I like to keep it real.  
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?  

My  husband would say I use  ”like” too much (vestiges of the ‘80s Valley Girl trend). At work, I am always saying we need to “build the plane before we fly it” and ask if the “juice is worth the squeeze.”
Which talent would you most like to have? 

I wish I could sing and dance like I could when I was 16, but I also wish I could quiet my monkey brain enough to meditate. 
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 

I am always working on listening since I am a problem solver and talker by nature.  Also, I have experienced enough trauma in my life that I am more cautious. I miss when I felt more spontaneous and carefree. I am working on finding more joy in letting go, but being a parent makes it harder!  
Where would you most like to live? 

I already live here. I fantasize about a year abroad in Italy, Spain, or Bali. Otherwise, we will just have to visit! I love to be a citizen of the world.
What is your most treasured possession?  

My dad’s old radio. It was in every kitchen in every home I ever lived in. Every meal was cooked with classical music or the drone of NPR in the background. I love keeping his memory alive in my own kitchen. He always believed that food was where family connects.

Who makes you laugh the most?  

My son. He is already sarcastic with good comedic timing for a five year old, but usually I just laugh at watching the world through his eyes. It is so refreshing. I want to enjoy every minute of his wonder and curiosity. 
What is your motto?  

“Good is the enemy of great.” I used to think I knew it all, now I am always learning and wanting to improve for my students, my family, my employees, but mostly for myself. Girls need more female role models who feel good about themselves and are always growing and learning. Age is such a blessing. 
Which historical figure do you most identify with? 

Fred Rogers. He was an unexpected champion for children and believed that we could use many unique opportunities to learn valuable life lessons. He wasn’t afraid to talk about tough things, and many people doubted his ability. I relate to that. What is different about us is that as a woman I have had to fight hard to be seen and heard and that is often at odds with the humility that Fred Rogers demonstrated throughout his life. I aspire to find his humble nature, calm, and gratitude in my daily life.

On what occasion do you lie?  

I am a brutally honest person, but after working with kids long enough, you learn that saying something hurtful that does not have a lesson, conflict resolution, or grit-building experience in it has no purpose. Honesty has value when it helps foster growth or connection, but mean is just mean.  

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