Girls Self-Esteem Program Academy rehearses around the clock for performance of ‘The Nutcracker’

Denver Russell has the chance of a lifetime. She will star in what’s believed to be Oak Park’s first rendition of the classic ballet “The Nutcracker.”

“It means a lot to me,” the bashful 10-year-old said last week.

Denver is one of 40 girls in the Girls Self-Esteem Program Academy who are practicing their dance moves around the clock and honing their pointe technique by balancing on their toes. The group will perform Monday and Tuesday before hundreds at the Guild Theater.

Girls in the program, ages 4 to 18, practice ballet three times a week and pay between $25 and $50 a month to participate. Most of the girls are black and hail from underprivileged families from across the Sacramento region, said Kandice Kelly, the program’s director.

“I’m of the belief that every girl in the world should take ballet once,” said Kelly, a former ballerina. “It helps with poise. It helps with grace.”

Kelly founded the program five years ago after volunteering at the Fathers Resource Center, a nonprofit for single fathers that she discovered while working as a television news reporter.

“There were a lot of girls who didn’t have mothers. And the little girls started following me on the weekends because I was the only female,” Kelly said.

Soon, Kelly was taking a cohort of 40 to 60 girls to local restaurants to refine their dining etiquette. The program also includes classes in self-defense and culminates with an annual graduation ceremony.

In October, the program recruited NaTalia Johnson, a professional ballerina from New York City, to start a ballet school for the girls. The NaTalia Johnson Conservatory of Ballet kicked off the season with 40 students who will perform a modern twist of “The Nutcracker.” They will continue lessons year-round after the performance.

“I just saw the opportunity from the girls. There’s so much energy and talent,” Johnson said, when asked why she chose to start a conservatory in Sacramento.

The academy’s office on Folsom Boulevard features a newly installed $4,000 dance floor. It includes three layers of wood and one layer of sponge, for the springy feel that ballerinas need.

Victor Goodwin’s daughters, Dalesia, 8, and Valiyah, 3, will both perform in “The Nutcracker.”

“It’s a family affair,” Goodwin said. “I watched my daughters blossom.”

In recent weeks, the Girls Self-Esteem Program Academy stumbled upon hard times. The organization was sharing its space with the Fathers Resource Center, but that organization recently went belly up. Both groups were evicted for not paying rent, said landlord Michelle Horan.

Kelly said she delivered a $2,329 check to pay for December and attempted to negotiate a new lease with Horan. But the talks were not successful.

“At this point, with the relationship hostile, we think it’s best if they find a new place,” Horan said.

The girls will have six days after their final performance to pack up and leave. Although one anonymous donor has promised enough money to potentially cover the group’s rent for several months, Kelly said the money has not yet arrived and the future remains uncertain.

Johnson was unfazed.

“We’ve got to find another place,” she said. “It’s for the kids.”