Sweetwater performing arts school dances toward a new stage

Miami Arts Studio at Zelda Glazer’s performing arts students use their ‘cafetorium’ for plays, shows and performances. The school district began funding for a new auditorium.
Miami Arts Studio at Zelda Glazer’s performing arts students use their ‘cafetorium’ for plays, shows and performances. The school district began funding for a new auditorium.

Jezabel Espinoza can’t wait for Dec. 12. She, and her 10-member high school dance team, will perform in their first competition.

For Jezabel, a 15-year-old sophomore at Miami Arts Studio at Zelda Glazer, it’ll also be her first time on a professional stage.

Her dance team, like the other performing arts students at MAS, performs in the school’s ‘cafetorium’ — their cafeteria transformed into an auditorium.

The transformation does an OK job, Espinoza said, but her dance team agreed, it still smells like chicken and cleaning supplies on performance nights.

But as of a September meeting, Miami-Dade school district wheels are in motion to build a professional stage for the students.

James Torrens, chief facilities officer for the district, said the million dollars for the stage is seed money. Over the next five years, the district will budget enough funding to design and build the stage, as well as fill it with equipment.

The first step is to get a master plan of the site and an initial design, Torrens said.

“It's a great opportunity,” he said. “We want to provide the students with the facilities they need to make the most of their programs.”

The weeds and grasses occupying the seven acres of empty land adjacent to the school will be traded for an auditorium with a stage, seats, storage space and best of all, a dressing room.

Right now, the dancers and singers and performers at MAS change into their costumes in the physical education locker rooms.

“It’ll make us more serious if we’re on a professional stage,” Espinoza said. “It’s just going to help us grow as a school and as dancers.”

MAS, located at 15015 SW 24th St in Sweetwater, is Miami-Dade County’s newest performing arts school. Eight hundred of its 1,640 students are in the magnet program for performing arts, said principal Miguel Balsera.

“There’s so much talent here — from the students to the staff. Everyone pitches in,” he said.

The program is in its second year, and there’s already a line of potential students. Last year, there were nearly 1,200 applicants for 250 spots, and this year the school is opening up about 400 spots.

Miami-Dade Schools’ 375 magnets schools opened their enrollment on Thursday. Applications are accepted through Jan. 15.

At 10 a.m., Jezabel’s team wasn’t the only group practicing. In the school’s “black box”, about 40 seventh- and eighth-graders sang, danced and jazz-handed to a rendition of That’s Entertainment.

During a break in their practice, Nadya Mohammed, 13, put it pretty simply.

“Cafeterias are to eat in,” she said.

But a stage is something to dream about. Destiny Perez, 13, said she’s in it for the realism.

“It’s a common goal here to be on Broadway or be on stage professionally,” she said. “This gets us closer, closer, closer to feeling like we are.”

Sophia Soler, 13, said this improvement has been a long time coming.

“We are the first theatre graduating class, and I’m pretty sure we started talking about this when we were in sixth grade,” she said.

But some students want a stage for purely practical reasons. Mariella Peralta, 13, said that during last season’s performance of Les Misérables, there was barely enough room on the stage for the entire group.

“Everyone was pushing each other just to fit,” she said.

The cafetorium seats about 450 students, and the new auditorium may hold as many as 500 to 700, Balsera said.

Vocal students are thrilled too, said vocal teacher Angely DePaz. Her 91-student program practices in the largest classroom the school offers, which barely fits her largest class of 40 students.

“Acoustically, it sounds like we’re singing in a bathroom,” she said.

DePaz said her hope is for a fully tailored room for her students to practice in.

But the benefits of a stage go beyond the performing arts students, Balsera said. The stage will provide a way to show off digital backgrounds designed by students.

Already, their work is on display as the promotional posters and programs for the school’s shows.

To upgrade the cafetorium and help it ride out the waiting period until the new stage, the superintendent fundraised $40,000 for upgraded lights, a sound system and projector.

“We wanted to make it as functional and professional as possible,” Balsera said.

The district profits off MAS’s cafetorium, which it rents out 10 to 12 times a year to community theater groups and private schools. Rental starts at $170 for time in the building, and additions like staff and a cleaning crew raise the price further.

Balsera said this arrangement shows that there’s a need in the community for a professional space to perform, and the new stage could bring in additional revenue for the school district.

“It’ll serve as a community theater,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Until then, students like Nadya Mohammed can’t wait.

“I’ll just feel like I made it. I made it to the big time,” she said.