By Katia Protsenko

It’s a room full of teenagers, and not one of them is hunched over. In fact, all are standing proudly, smiling, and moving with grace. This is the perfection Sandra Staka strives for in every dance class she teaches at her new Watsonville studio, Steps Dance & Performing Arts.

Staka, Steps’ owner and director, has been a dancer since middle school and has taught for over 10 years. She is glad her new Watsonville location has been met with positive feedback.

“[County residents] always had to drive to Santa Cruz or Capitola, and this saves them a commute,” she said. “There’s more to do in town.”

Staka’s business has expanded greatly in the past few years, growing from a modest six dancers to more than 100. She says she looks forward most to helping her students reach “the next level.”

“The next level is a different thing to each person,” Staka said. “For some, it’s moving from intermediate to advanced, or moving from taking classes to competition, or moving from one to four classes a week.”

Staka’s students seem to appreciate her personalized approach, expressing warmth and admiration about her teaching style.

Dance class at Steps is conducted with a smile. Instead of hovering over her students exhorting them to perform better, Staka dances along with the girls. She is flexible in her physique as well as her approach to dance. In teaching choreography, Staka takes suggestions from students, working with them to mold and format their routines.

Staka’s passion for dance is infectious, as many of her students have come to fall in love with the art form.

“It’s an individual experience,” Jackie Palmer, a 16-year-old student of Staka’s, said. “You connect with yourself, but also with the group [of dancers].”

“It’s expressive,” added Cassie Wood, 15, with a laugh. “Yes, that’s the best way to describe dancing.”

Staka believes that most casual observers are unaware of how much work young people have to put into becoming dancers. Many of her students are deeply committed to dance, practicing for several hours five days a week. With such a deep dedication, it is important that the teens become aware of and listen to their bodies so they can lower their risk of injury.

“People tend to forget that dancing is a sport. It’s physically difficult, it’s technical, and it takes years of training,” she said.

But Staka feels all the dedication and rigor is worth it when one of her students discovers a true passion for dancing.

“It’s amazing to see a teenager realize dance is their dream,” she said. “They begin to have a focus, and when a teen has a focus, there is nothing beyond their reach. [The students] are focused enough to get all their stuff done. They don’t have time to mess around.”

Staka’s teenage students are working especially hard right now because they are participating in their first dance competition on Mar. 9. Although Staka has high hopes, she is not pressing her students to win.

“I want them to see the different styles [of dance], they need to know what else is out there. It’s not about winning, it’s about expanding their horizons,” Staka said. “It’s more important that they get to know dance. Performing is like the icing on the cake.”