A darkened theater. On stage is a dance performance, and in the audience, watching intently, is a grieving young man who was orphaned at the age of 17. Faced with the possibility of a lifetime of medication prescribed by a therapist, an epiphany dawns as a response to what he is seeing on stage.
“When I watched the movement and language between the members of the dance ensemble, it was everything that I was feeling,” says Michael Nickerson-Rossi, the founder of a dance company undergoing rapid growth at a 62-year-old shopping center in South Palm Springs. “I could see and feel the release of my emotions that I was holding, and it drew me. I wanted to physically experience it as well.”
Despite never having studied dance before, he began his education in the art at Modesto Junior College in his hometown, Cal State Long Beach, and Cal State Dominguez Hills. “I studied dance technique classes every day for years,” he says. “I found I had a gift for dance composition.”
After having achieved acclaim as a choreographer, he launched and founded the Nickerson-Rossi Dance (NRD) in 2011 as founder and artistic director. Today it is a multifaceted organization: a nonprofit that organizes the annual Palm Springs International Dance Festival and The Palm Springs Dance Academy, offering complete dance education and performances.
Nickerson-Rossi has lived in Palm Springs since 2012. He brought NRD to the city, making it the permanent home for the company. This month NRD put the finishing touches on a 6,000-square-foot state-of-the-art dance theater — the only one in Coachella Valley. The facility includes a 1,500-square-foot sprung dance stage, lighting designed specifically for dance, and audience seating so intimate that one almost feels as if they’re dancing with those on stage.
Previously NRD has performed to sold-out audiences at McCallum, Sunnyland, Frank Sinatra Twin Palm Estates, and Annenberg Theaters.
Nickerson-Rossi knows from experience about the power of dance, and he aims to help others learn its therapeutic benefits.
“It liberated me from the grief of losing my parents,” he says. The focuses are on youth and young adults, adult dance education, and dance as a healing process, while providing access to professional performances.
NRD is involved in outreach work with the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center at Eisenhower Health in Rancho Mirage, offering dance therapy classes for abused children and working with cancer patients at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, and also brings dance programs to Riverside County schools and communities.
Celeste Hull, 16, is one of many local youths benefitting from NRD.
“It changed my life,” she says. “I never thought I could make a career out of it. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, and now have met people from all over the world.
“I’ve learned everything at NRD — how to produce, stage direction, lighting, music and costume design.”
As a result of what she learned at NRD, Hull received a $60,000 scholarship to attend Amda College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts, located in Los Angeles and New York, after Amda saw her audition for Palm Springs International Dance Festival.
NRD offers classes for all ages, from beginners to professionals in jazz, ballet, and even hip-hop. Adult classes include ballroom, swing, salsa, and tango. There are also fitness classes and a meditation-like class called Sound Bath, a deeply immersive sound experience that induces a fully relaxed state of ease.
Nickerson-Rossi has a message to those who don’t think they’re up for the challenge of dancing or anything else: “Never give in when you lose something. Find out what empowers you, research it, dive in deep, then pursue it and never stop.”
Coming up: The “Integrated” Summer Dance Concert at Nickerson-Rossi Dance will be held July 30 at 6 p.m. at the studio, 611 South Palm Canyon Dr. in Palm Springs. For more information, go to the dance academy’s website at https://www.nickersonrossidance.com/