Step inside the Salinas School of Dance and the serenity is almost overwhelming.
At 4:30 p.m. calming classical piano music reaches around the main room hosting the Intermediate Ballet class. The walls of mirrors expand the small room.
Practicing dancers prance up and down on their toes.
For one dancer in particular, Rachel Valentin, this studio has become a second home. She’s been coming in since she was 5 years old and is now the longest-tenured student in the studio's history.
At 15 months old, Valentin stopped talking altogether. It was the first sign of her autism.
But you wouldn't guess that as she glides in graceful tandem with the rest of the students in Intermediate Ballet. The 24-year-old moves like a natural, but her journey has been nearly two decades in the making.
Starting something new
Valentin was a typical newborn. She made the usual baby sounds and babbling talk.
But shortly after her first birthday, “she went mute,” her mother Janet said.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) generally affects people’s abilities to interact and communicate with others and starts at a very young age. That can range from abnormal eye contact, body language and back-and-forth conversation to difficulty adjusting to social situations and unusually intense, restrictive interests.
Valentin's ASD shows through primarily in her speech and social interactions. As a child, she could speak individual words but stringing together sentences could be challenging.
When she saw a live holiday performance of “The Nutcracker,” she told her mother she wanted to try dance.
Janet called the Salinas School of Dance, a fixture in the dance community in Salinas since 1938.
European ballet dancer Ramon Renov opened the school and later turned it over to current owner Lisa Eisemann in 1980.
Eisemann, a dancer since she was a toddler, has seen countless students come and go, some different than expected. A rise in popularity of ballet in the late 1970s and 1980s among football players, likely due to the achievements of NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann, are one of the many experiences that make Eisemann look back and smile.
"There used to be bunches of them," she said. "Big guys filling this place up."
Eisemann, as she had with the football players decades ago, welcomed Valentin. Though Valentin needed an adjustment in teaching, she did her best to catch on quickly.
“A lot of times I had to use sign language,” Eisemann said. “Like putting a finger to my lips for her to be quiet. That way was best for communicating with her.”
When she began coming to the School of Dance, Valentin tried all types of dance and became a regular at jazz, ballet and tap.
“We really had you do everything that first year, didn’t we?” Eisemann said to Valentin as both took a break from that recent Intermediate Ballet class.
“Yes,” Valentin answered. “I did (it) all.”
A little bit of everything made a profound difference for good reason. Multiple studies done by the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) and the Andréa Rizzo Foundation found a common theme within dance: The structure provided by a class and focus on physical movement improved the ability for those with ASD to communicate verbally and nonverbally as well as interact in social situations.
Valentin's progress was put to the test soon after her first year of dance. There was a recital at Sherwood Hall that would include busy movement backstage, performing in front of an audience and nerves about the whole experience.
Valentin’s parents, Janet and Michael, both worried about how she’d do under these circumstances.
The recital was June 15, 2002. Valentin ascended to the stage in a fairy costume adorned with a sparkling silver crown on her head, gossamer wings and sporting a wand with a tinfoil star on its tip.
The anxiety her parents were concerned about proved nonexistent. She went up, performed well and showed exactly how dance could change her.
“It was a highlight of her life,” her mother said.
From then to now
The recital at Sherwood Hall more than 16 years ago was a sign of things to come. Valentin has participated in jazz, tap and ballet twice a week ever since.
She’s become such a fixture that she’ll sometimes correct Eisemann on the lesson progressions.
“Sometimes I forget and she remembers,” Eisemann said. She looked at Valentin. “You'll have to be telling me what to do.”
“Yes,” Valentin said with a smile. “I might say, ‘No, 'Teacher Lisa,' (we) do this.’”
She's grown more comfortable in social situations as well. Valentin works a regular work week in the cafeterias at Sacred Heart School in Salinas, and her classmates at the studio are around the same age as the kids she sees at work.
“They kind of look at her like a mama bear,” Eisemann said. “They’re supportive of her, we never have to worry about her having a partner for anything.”
“It always makes me happy,” Valentin said. “Seeing girls come in (who) are my friends…it’s my favorite place to be every day on Tuesday and Thursdays.”
When performances include movements Valentin struggles to perform, Eisemann and her classmates adapt.
“We performed a 'Lion King'-themed dance that was a little tough,” Eisemann said. “But we had her involved holding some of the animals throughout the movements.”
In a recent class, Valentin marched and swayed through the Pasodoble, a Spanish dance that emulates the movements of a bullfight. The staccato notes of the accompanying music are a stark contrast to the classical melodies of the beginning of the class but the group transitions easily through the movement, ending in a pose like a bullfighter.
Valentin’s right in line with the rest of the class, performing the movements cleanly.
Though she’s the longest tenured student in the studio’s history and one of its oldest, she’s showing no signs of wanting to move on. On a Tuesday or Thursday, the most likely place to find Valentin is the studio near the corner of West Gabilan Street and Lincoln Avenue.