This Dance Couple Lost Their Home To a California Fire

A few days ago, a friend forwarded me the GoFundMe Campaign of Nikki and Ethan White, a dancerly wife and husband duo who escaped the California "Woolsey Fire" with their children but whose home burned to the ground. The couple had met while dancing for Smuin Ballet, and later were one of the top three finalists on Paula Abdul's TV show "Live to Dance." Today, they live in the Los Angeles area, where Ethan is researching how dance partnerships develop interpersonal trust at USC.

I spoke to Nikki about the fire, what comes next and how readers can help.


What warning did you have about the fire?

I woke at 6 am on Friday, November 9, turned on my phone and saw a flood of texts messages. I packed a suitcase and got the kids in the car. I didn't take nearly enough. I was in complete denial. Part of me kept thinking, "Of course I should take that!" while the other part thought, "Don't tell me I'm not coming back to my house, of course I'm coming back to my house."

Ethan stayed for a few more hours to pack the Nutcracker costumes—we had a show to put on in a week. We ended up getting separated by road closures with no power or cell reception. I took the kids (5 year old Dax and 2 year old Skye) to the Santa Barbara Zoo to keep them entertained.

What's the reality you're facing presently?

Our current reality is that we are not homeless, but we are displaced. Thankfully, we are surrounded by many families and friends that are willing to help.

The difficult part, of course, is losing our home. Every now and then I'll think of something I owned and I'll get a little pang in my heart knowing it's gone. That's where I rocked my babies to sleep, read them books, watched them play outside, watched them grow.

How are you managing the aftermath?

I initially didn't want to accept help, but with the encouragement of several friends I set up a GoFundMe campaign. I did not expect the outpouring of support that we have received, and can't look at it very often because it makes me cry. People from every facet of our lives have donated: school teachers, dance teachers, students, patrons, dancers, directors, comedians, friends and family near and far. I know that if and when someone is in need, I will be able to pay it forward because that is what so many people have done for us. We could not be more grateful.

What's next?

Honestly, I have no idea. We are still in shock. It feels like we might take some time to travel, teach, choreograph and reconnect with friends and colleagues. In the long term, we are going to rebuild our home, our neighborhood, and our community. It will take time, patience and a lot of perseverance, but dancers have these traits in spades.

How can readers help those affected by the fires?

Candidly, I would say that the most immediate way to help others in need is whatever monetary donation that you can give, as well as assurances that you are willing to be there throughout the recovery. Some feel a desire to give something tangible—clothing, toiletries, toys—and while a few of these are needed, getting too much is overwhelming. We just don't have anywhere to put all the things. If you have items you want folks to have, hang on to them! Especially bigger items that they'll need once they have a home. If you have space, offer to store things for people. But most importantly? Just be there. Even if those affected can't respond for a month, just reach out and say something kind. We need more kindness in the world.

Any other information you would like to share?

I have been building ballet "camps" where I teach classes, and at the end of the session we put on a condensed show. We were just about to perform a Gone Nutcracker show with over 60 local dancers, parents, 20 guest dancers and artists, and we have not given up on doing that show. The theater we were going to perform at is no longer accessible, but we will find another location. Art has always brought us closer to people, and it certainly bonded us to so many families in our Malibu community.

Have you or other dance colleagues been affected by the Camp and Woolsey fires? Share your stories in the comments below.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021