Performing arts are in the spotlight

Heather Nichols, San Benito High School’s department chair, dance instructor and dance company advisor, is surrounded by her students during an April 13 beginners dance class in the brand new Visual and Performing Arts & Academic Building. Photo by Scott Forstner

When San Benito High School students walk into the brand new 2,000-square-foot dance studio on the ground floor of the $10.7 million Visual and Performing Arts & Academic Building, they are now welcomed by bright lights, mirrored walls, ballet bars and a spacious, enlightening setting.

“It’s big. It’s bright. It’s nice to look around and be able to see yourself and everyone else and it is not so dark,” said 17-year-old senior Olivia Lara, one of more than 200 students who take the popular dance elective that is led by department chair/instructor/dance company advisor Heather Nichols. “She really opened up my eyes to different styles of dance.”

When the music kicks on, the students start moving their feet, arms and bodies in choreographed poses to a variety of beats from hula to Ballywood to Latin to Hip-hop.

“It’s very energetic, just a very awesome feeling whenever you’re dancing,” said 15-year-old freshman Bryanna Hernandez during the April 13 beginners class.

Nichols, who is in her ninth year as a San Benito dance teacher and fifth years as Performing Arts Department chair, gradually allows her students to inject their own choreography as they move from the beginner to intermediate to advanced classes. Each session is 100 minutes.

“I hope that they gain confidence and understanding of who they are and (use dance as) an emotional release. I hope they can take all their new skills and confidence and apply them to other areas of their lives,” said Nichols of what she ultimately wants her students to get out of the co-ed program. “I teach a lot of cultural dances to promote diversity and bring that cultural awareness.”

While the energy emanates from the dance studio throughout the school day and even after with access for several dance teams coached by Nichols, the VAPAA building is as diverse as Nichols’ musical selections. The structure includes fine arts and ceramics classes on the ground floor as well as seven academic classrooms on the second floor. The Measure U-funded facility, the latest in an array of upgrades to the sprawling campus, also has student and staff restrooms, a parking lot, three work yards and a teacher workroom/lounge.

“The vision for our new VAPAA Building was to provide our students with modernized and upgraded classroom and art studio facilities,” said SBHS Principal Adrian Ramirez. “With a robust offering and enrollment of Visual and Performing Arts courses, we had outgrown our old facilities.”

Previously, dance students made due with a makeshift studio of two portable trailers put together on campus. Nichols said the major upgrade shows “that (district leadership) values the arts and providing a well-rounded education for students and giving them opportunities to choose their interests.”

Ramirez explained that the VAPAA building, which just opened for classes in the winter, serves multiple purposes by expanding the arts and also allowing “us to replace aging classrooms and an opportunity to design learning spaces that have the flexibility to meet the needs of all students.”

Included in the new classrooms, similar to what has been added to the new Career Technical Education building, are “flow desks,” which allow students to either work individually in the traditional way or move their desks in sort of an interlocking pattern to encourage group work. The rooms also include “whiteboard paint” on the walls to allow teachers to be at different areas of the classroom, and television monitors on opposite sides of the room to prevent the classroom from just being a teacher standing in the same spot in front of students. As with all classes, they are equipped with Chromebook carts.

“This is a community investment that has created excitement for both students and staff, as well as a sense of obligation to do everything we can to ensure that our educational services match the quality of our new facilities,” Ramirez added.

The excitement in Nichols’ studio, which includes a Marley dance floor, is contagious among the students who were all smiles throughout the April 13 class session. Even with five years of dance under her belt, Lara was immediately impressed with the SBHS dance program, which she is participating in for the first time in her high school career.

“I come from a hip hop background and she has really broadened my perspective in dance,” Lara said. “Our attitudes all change when we come in here. It’s always happy.”


  • (2) Fine Arts Classrooms
  • (1) Ceramics Classrooms
  • (1) Dance Classroom
  • (7) Classrooms
  • Restrooms for students and staff
  • Parking Lot
  • (3) Work yards
  • Teacher Workroom/Lounge
  • Classes started in Winter 2018


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