It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Jarrah Myles' first-period choreography students were in last-minute rehearsals for their fall dance concert that evening. "All of a sudden my students' phones started ringing like crazy," says Myles, a teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a Chico, California, high school whose dance and theater programs Myles helped establish in 2010. "And once they answered, I saw these tragic faces staring back at me."
That morning they learned the Camp Fire—California's deadliest, most destructive fire—had broken out in Paradise, the next town over, and families were desperate to get in touch with their children and make plans to evacuate as needed. Within an hour, Myles had canceled the show, and in her words, "our dance studio turned into a safe haven. We turned on Disney movies, got yummy snacks and made sure everyone stayed close."
Though Myles considers it one of her most traumatic experiences, the months that followed opened her eyes to the tremendous power of the arts. "Through everything, I saw all these young people who were incredibly passionate about the arts," she says. "They had lost their homes, their churches, their dance studios—all of their familiar places. And what became most important to them was continuing doing what they loved. For many of my students, that was dancing."
Soon after the fire, Myles, who is also the assistant director of Chico Community Ballet and teaches at Chico Creek Dance Centre, was driving home on a route she had taken every day as a teenager—when it hit her: "The studio I'd grown up in had burned down."
A Chico native, Myles had trained at a studio in Paradise before graduating with dual degrees in musical theater and business from California State University, Chico, and then studying dance education and administration at New York University's Steinhardt School of Education. "It had been 20-plus years since I'd danced in that space—and it hadn't been a dance studio in years—but the building still felt like a part of me. And it was just gone. And that's what my young dancers were experiencing."
Wanting to help, and to build on the momentum of her students' passion for dance after the fire, Myles took the lead on a new project: Art Strong Butte County, an effort driven by students.
"Its mission is to facilitate arts programs or arts events that students of any age and from anywhere in Butte County can participate in. If someone has a project, we can help fund it. Or if someone has an event, we can help find a venue to present the work."
Myles and her students built a website and social-media sites, filed nonprofit paperwork and established a GoFundMe page to source funds from out of the area. Its first big initiative helped fund a multischool choir concert, and at press time, Myles was looking forward to hosting more events in late summer/early fall. "It's been incredibly hard to find space to perform," says Myles. "A lot of the theaters that had shut down in the area are just opening their doors again—and they're booked solid. Studios are closed. So Art Strong Butte County is about connecting people who need space to those who have it, connecting people who have resources to those who don't. We can be that liaison."
One successful example of Art Strong facilitation is that Dance Evolution, a studio in Paradise that burned down, rehearses at Inspire two nights a week, allowing the school to continue in some fashion, while the owner works to relocate the studio to North Chico.
For Myles and her students, things are just beginning to reach a new normal. A quarter of the school's population lost their homes—including 12 of Myles' 24 dance company members. And on March 14, Myles' classes finally got to perform their fall concert. "It was incredible," says Myles. "I've never seen students dance with such passion, and it brought closure after months. They're doing well, and many are figuring it out. Some students have said 'I need to step back,' and others have really jumped in tenfold. And it's sparked such amazing conversations about healing and what that looks like for different people. Both choices are OK. My students are learning how to be passionate and compassionate at the same time."
Mark Your Calendar
Join us in Long Beach, CA, July 26–28, or in NYC, August 1–3, for our 2019 Dance Teacher Summit.