By Leslie Hsu Oh
The summer of 2020, when my four kids were moping about the cancellation of school and snowboard competitions, I drove them to a beach on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe about 40 minutes from our house. By the time we got there, there were no parking spots, so I meandered into a quiet neighborhood of Tahoma, nestled beneath a sea of sugar and Jeffrey pines. I was about to pull over and take a nap when Riley, age 7, shouted from the backseat, “Ms. Christin!”
In a vacant lot between two homes, beneath the dappled shade of the forest, a lithe figure spun the finest piqué turns upon a 28-by-24-feet portable stage. Her movement was so effortless, as if she were in cinematic slow motion, that tears filled my eyes. I didn’t know if I was more moved by this act of defiance, dancing when the world seemed to be shutting down, or the courage of Christin Hanna, the founder and artistic director of the Lake Tahoe Dance Collective (LTDC), to establish ground zero for her students, protect a sense of normalcy for our kids, and maintain one thing that we didn’t have to give up.
Reflecting upon those difficult days, Hanna told me that the performing arts industry was hit badly. “There was really no pivot to make,” she said. She was one of the first to offer classes outdoors with a pay-what-you-can sliding scale. It wasn’t easy. She had to offer more classes since only six students were allowed to enroll per class. Without a mirror, students had to rely on auditory instead of visual feedback. Masks needed to be purchased for students who forgot to bring theirs. Somehow, she managed to generate enough income to pay the rent for her empty studio.
That’s because Hanna is known for breaking ground. It’s why the Arts Council of Placer County recently named her one of 40 icons that have significantly impacted art and culture. After fulfilling her dreams as a ballerina in New York, she returned home to Tahoe in 2008 and founded the nonprofit LTDC. In 2013, she cofounded the Lake Tahoe Dance Festival with Constantine Baecher in order to bring the highest caliber of dance here. So far, LTDC has commissioned 23 new works, presented over 100 pieces in 45 performances featuring over 50 world-renown guest artists and dance companies, and invited Olympic-level stars of the dance world to perform alongside, teach, and hang out with her students.
Without putting on her shoes, Riley masked herself, then leaped out of my car and ran full speed up the stairs of the stage into Hanna’s arms. I realized that Hanna was creating in our community not just opportunities for kids to learn from elite dancers, but a space for girls to mature. At the heart of her genius, Hanna was raising kids to be good human beings.
We had only met Hanna eight months earlier when Riley auditioned for the Tahoe Nutcracker and received this email: “We are pleased to invite you to be a part of our production as a Mouse!
Lake Tahoe Dance Collective is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) dance company and is hiring you as a dancer with the same kind of contract that you would sign at a professional dance company.”
“You should not be denied an education in the arts. And you should not be denied for financial needs. Being able to study an art form is a fundamental human right.”
~ Christin Hanna, the founder and artistic director (LTDC)
From the moment Riley met Hanna, I could see something inside her ignited. It wasn’t just because she loved ballet. She had been taking ballet lessons since she was 3. Perhaps it was a matter of being respected? Or realizing that you’ve just met someone who sees your potential, who believes in you.
Riley took her three-month-long rehearsal schedule very seriously. Some days she would train at Palisades with her snowboard team from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., then, barely able to keep her eyes open, change into her ballet clothes in the back of my car and insist that I drive her to rehearsal even in a snowstorm. I had never seen a 6-year-old so committed and passionate. Not only did her dance skills improve dramatically, but also her confidence. It was as if her persona had outgrown her physical form.
Summer Hatcher, who danced with Hanna for seven years and says she owes Hanna for helping her secure full tuition for four years at Marymount Manhattan College on a ballet scholarship, exhibited this persona. “Christin allowed me to see myself and the world in such an expansive way. Because of her, I have the confidence to believe I can do big things in this life.”
Elia Schreiber, who danced with Hanna for eight years and just started Berklee College of Music with a minor in ballet at the Boston Conservatory, also exhibited this persona. When I asked her to share her earliest memory when she realized Hanna was extraordinary, she answered, “I was so scared to dance with these talented older girls. Bryce, one of the older girls in the company, walked up to me and helped me pin back my baby hair. That was the first moment I realized that Christin’s studio isn’t just a place where we work on our technique and strength. It’s a home for anyone and everyone. She would make all her dancers feel fully comfortable to be themselves and express anything they needed.”
At the next Tahoe Nutcracker audition, Riley, who turned 8 that year, landed the lead mouse part and her younger sister, Logan, who had just turned 5, was cast as a mouse. Rehearsal times doubled and soon I couldn’t keep up with the schedule. Hanna always responded in an instant to my urgent text messages asking if anyone could give my girls a ride. Sometimes, Hanna drove them herself.
When the third Tahoe Nutcracker audition occurred, Hanna knew exactly what my girls needed. She cast them in roles that made them feel important. As the third child in our household, Riley needed extra affirmation she never seemed to get enough of at home. Hanna choreographed a lead role designed just for Riley. Every detail, down to repurposing a hair ornament into a one-of-a-kind ring, skyrocketed my daughter’s belief in herself.
I didn’t even recognize Riley or Logan on stage. If this is how a 6- and 9-year-old blossomed under Hanna’s tutelage, I finally understood what Schreiber put best: “Christin has held my hand through so much. She hugged me while I cried, listened to all my boy problems, gave me advice on how to proceed with difficult friendships. She is so much more than just a dance teacher. Christin is a strong, accomplished women who will bend over backwards to turn all her girls into the same thing.”
No matter the stress and grief we all experienced these past few years, all of us parents felt such relief that our girls had one safe place where they could thrive, unaffected by the pandemic. Schreiber’s mom Allyson said, “Hanna’s true gift is giving these girls grace, confidence, and strength as they struggle through adolescence. She connects them to artists around the world that mentor them as they grow. She creates a dance family for them, and this family supports them in Tahoe as they venture out into the big world.”
For example, Hatcher babysits for Hanna’s friend, Ashley Boulder, a principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet, which is to say a world-renowned artist in a ballet equivalent to Tom Brady in the NFL. Hanna is generous with time and contacts even to the students who are on scholarship. In fact, more than 50% are, even though she keeps her tuition around $3,600 compared to the average of $7,000 nationwide.
Ultimately, Hanna’s goal is for no one to pay for dance. “If dance could be treated the same way as we treat sports in this country. We’re educating kids to be good humans through this art form,” she said. “And it is absolutely about accessibility. You should not be denied an education in the arts. And you should not be denied for financial needs. Being able to study an art form is a fundamental human right.”
The next opportunity to see the Lake Tahoe Dance Collective in action is the Tahoe Nutcracker, Dec. 15 to 17, at North Tahoe High School. For tickets and donations, visit laketahoedancecollective.org.
~ Leslie Hsu Oh is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes for National Geographic, Travel +Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside, Vogue, and more. Read her work at lesliehsuoh.com or @lesliehsuoh.