Fresno teens share love of dance with Boys and Girls Club kids

In a small storage room with no air conditioning, 8-year-old Ashlee Villarreal is dancing to Justin Bieber's "Beauty and a Beat" with her two sisters and a dozen other youngsters.

The dancers must carefully avoid hockey equipment, boxes and each other to keep from falling on the hard, unpadded floor, but they are having a blast. This is a typical Wednesday practice for the Just Dance program at the Zimmerman Boys & Girls Club center in central Fresno.

Just Dance was created last summer by two San Joaquin Memorial High School and Fresno Dance Studio students: 16-year-old junior Kaitlyn Xavier and 17-year-old senior Ashlee Schuh. Every week, Xavier and Schuh take time between school and a rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule to teach children ages 6-12 basic dance moves.

"We wanted to share our passion for dance with little girls and boys that may not be able to afford or come to a dance studio," Schuh said during the recent annual Fresno Dance Studio recital at Clovis North, where Just Dance children were guest performers.

Despite the program's name, Schuh and Xavier are teaching a lot more than just dance.

"We've really learned a lot from dance," Xavier said. "It definitely teaches discipline, motivation and being respectful of others."

The kids are also getting a good workout. During the practice, several of them complained about how the basic stretches "hurt," to which Xavier replied, "It's supposed to. It's a good hurt, right?"

The instructors sacrifice more than just their time and energy to support Just Dance. Over the last year, they have sent out a barrage of emails asking for donations from friends, family and teachers to help pay for costumes for performances. Schuh and Xavier spend their own money each week to provide the group with snacks.

Abrail Sandoval, 8, is usually the only boy taking part in the Just Dance practices. He's been an active participant in the program since its inception, and he said he'd rather dance than play basketball because he has so much fun each week.

Two other boys participate in Just Dance, but they can't make the weekly practices. That's not an uncommon challenge for Schuh and Xavier. So is keeping young minds attentive -- the commotion at a recent practice included kids leaving to do something else and others arriving late. Schuh said it makes it difficult to coordinate performance dance routines.

The family members of Just Dance students don't mind the chaotic performances. Ashlee's grandfather, Ralph Villarreal, was at the Clovis North performance. "This is a great open door for these kids," he said. "It's an awesome experience for them."

Ashlee plans on walking through that open door. She wants to be a dancer when she grows up, which she clarified will be "when I'm a teenager."

How to help

To donate to Just Dance, contact Ashlee Schuh at ashleeschuh@gmail.com