Dance studio for at-risk kids steps into historic downtown Aurora venue
By Denise Crosby email@example.com November 1, 2013 5:48PM
Updated: December 4, 2013 6:27AM
It’s incredible how a few weeks can change the tone of a story when passion and hard work are at its core.
When I first met Martin Luna last month, the founder of Simply Destinee Dance Studio was in despair. The mentor for a growing group of at-risk Aurora teens had just picked up Oscar Mondragon from the hospital, after the 16-year-old East High student underwent surgery to repair a shattered nose and eye socket from an ugly assault in September.
Luna’s tears fell not only for Oscar but for his own dream of providing refuge for all kids struggling to find acceptance and love. Despite much sacrifice that included giving up his own apartment and sleeping in his van, Luna was losing the studio, named in memory of his 16-year-old niece who committed suicide, because he could no longer keep up with rent.
“My biggest fear is not being here for these kids,” the 30-year-old photographer for JCPenney told me as he faced this latest hurdle. “I need to find a way to keep going.”
Last week, the despair was replaced with excitement when he called to tell me. Simply Destinee had found a new home, on the second floor of Fox Island Place at the corner of Stolp Avenue and Galena Boulevard, right in the heart of downtown Aurora.
This office space, once the tea room of the historically significant Leland Hotel built in the 1920s, not only will give the studio the square footage it needs to accommodate the kids he’s drawing, Luna is hoping downtown’s growing arts community will help inspire and support his still-evolving program.
“The whole downtown is changing,” he said. “And we want to be part of that.”
Sweat builds pride
Visiting the new digs a couple of days after his call, I was immediately caught up in the activity going on in the new studio. One by one, teens just getting out of school poured into the building, exchanging backpacks for paintbrushes as they continued the slow process of renovating the area.
Their physical labor is important.
“If they put the work into it,” said Luna, “they will take more pride in it.”
While the kids were painting — on this day it was mostly boys, the previous afternoon lots of girls showed up — Luna took me on a tour that included a stop at a bare wall. He hopes to eventually tear it down to expand to the ground floor, which was once the iconic Leland Hotel lobby that still contains part of the original grand staircase, bronze chandelier and even an old phone booth.
His dream, he said, is to fill the still-existing wall with the names of sponsors that will help him reach that dream. Luna knows it’s going to take a lot of hard work … and community support. But one man clearly in his corner is Charlie Clarke, who manages Fox Island Place for the Evanston-based Kinzie Realty Corps.
Clarke understands he’s taking a chance with this fledgling project that revolves around at-risk teens. But after hearing Luna’s story, “Who wouldn’t want to help him?” he asked. In addition to helping keep kids off the streets, “Martin is getting results in ways that will save the city and schools a lot of money.”
Rachel Cleghorn can’t say enough about what the studio has done for her son Bryant, now 15, after he was seriously injured in a car accident 18 months ago. Doctors told the Aurora mom he’d never walk again, she said. And now her child is not only dancing up a storm but gaining confidence and a strong support network.
“It’s a place where we can be ourselves,” Bryant said, setting aside his paintbrush long enough to answer a few questions. “This place lets me express who I really am instead of hiding it.”
Mark Romero, whose three teenage boys are part of the program, agrees. These kids are not only learning from Luna but from each other, he said.
And they are finding a safe place to be.
When I met Oscar a few weeks ago — a juvenile has been charged with aggravated battery in his assault — he was in a bad spot both physically and emotionally. But last week was a different story as he and friend Makayla Rodriguez took a break from working to demonstrate the bachata, a Puerto Rican dance that has become popular in local clubs the last few years.
Oscar, bandages and swelling gone, couldn’t help but smile. And I couldn’t help but notice the music that was playing.
“I Love You Just the Way You Are.”