Jackie Rotman is every parent’s dream kid. Dynamic, focused, and philanthropic by nature, the 16-year-old newly crowned California Junior Miss has turned her passion for dance into a program that currently serves more than 400 underprivileged kids in Santa Barbara.
The Santa Barbara High School senior started Everybody Dance Now! two years ago after discovering that dance can change lives. Rotman first thought to start a dance program for impoverished children when—as a 12-year-old—she participated in Santa Barbara Dance Alliance’s “On the Verge: Teen Choreographer’s Showcase.” She and her dance partner, Jackie Zupsic, performed at Devereux, a residential facility that serves developmentally disabled children and adults. After their dance, they asked audience members to come up on stage and participate. “It was, seriously, like the best feeling,” Rotman recalls. “Everybody had so much self-esteem and was just oozing with joy.” She knew she wanted to duplicate that experience.
Today, the grant-funded program offers 19 free after-school hip-hop and world dance classes throughout the city, reaching all elementary and junior high school-aged kids as well as community youth organizations.
On a recent Friday, instructor Angela Carty was counting out a hip-hop cadence for 10 first through sixth graders at Cleveland School on the city’s east side. The girls followed her every move as she dipped, swiveled, whipped her arms back and forth, and hopped from side to side. “Smile!” Angela admonished. They did. And what do her students like about the class? One little girl, tossing her braids, says, “Everything!” Rotman recruited Carty, a Westmont College freshman who has been dancing for 10 years, to be one of the first teachers for Everybody Dance Now!
As a high school sophomore, Rotman started getting her dance friends involved. When she won the Miss Greater Ventura County’s Outstanding Teen in 2006, she made Everybody Dance Now! her competition platform. Soon after, she attended a national leadership conference for Jewish teens called Panim el Panim. One of the instructors there, Miriam Stein, offered a challenge: “We often hear that teenagers are the world’s future leaders. But I think teenagers can be leaders and create change today.”
Rotman took her words to heart. She contacted Julie McLeod, executive director of the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance, who showed her how to write a mini business plan, set up a budget, and apply for grants. Then she offered to let Rotman operate under the Alliance’s nonprofit status. The Santa Barbara Foundation funded Rotman’s first “professional” grant request. The Forest Foundation, the Santa Barbara Jazz Dance Academy, and the Santa Barbara Arts Commission also helped. Today, the city parks and recreation department, Girls Inc., Santa Barbara Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Police Activities League are among a host of sponsors.
Tall and lithe, with long blond hair, Rotman has devoted many more hours to her community and her passions than might be typical. She also heads up her high school’s Mock Trial team, and has won a slew of community service awards and honors. Still, she’s the epitome of a California teen. In her spare time, she loves to hang out with her friends, go to the beach and go shopping. Chocolate lava cake is a favorite snack.
Rotman begins studies at Stanford this fall—she skipped a grade in elementary school—and has passed the Everybody Dance Now! baton to two of her assistants. She feels confident they will continue the good work she’s started. And once she gets settled, she’ll find a dance group to join at college. But first, she’s flying to Mobile, Alabama, in June to compete in America’s Junior Miss competition. “It really is so empowering—you learn so much. Once I did Junior Miss and reached outside my comfort level in so many areas, I realized I could do anything,” Rotman says. “It’s a community of people all over the country that share a set of values—education, community service, diversity.” The winner will spend the next year traveling the country to promote the values of the Junior Miss program, which emphasizes scholastics, giving back, physical fitness, public speaking, poise, and self-assurance.
She won Santa Barbara’s Junior Miss contest last year, and took the California Junior Miss honors in January. She was named a Coca-Cola Scholar in February. “Teaching makes me feel refreshed. But it’s so much more than teaching them dance steps. It’s helping the kids and watching them grow,” Rotman says. “You have this ability to do something to change the world. It’s up to you to turn it on."