Rising Star Estrella Gonzales-Sanders Featured in New Debbie Allen Netflix Documentary

by Jasmine M. Pulido

Estrella Gonzales-Sanders’ parents may have been prophetic when they named her Estrella, the Spanish word for “star.” The young Renton resident has already danced in front of notable stars like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Barry Gordy, and Stevie Wonder, to name a few. Now, she has landed a small feature in Debbie Allen’s newly released Netflix documentary, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. And at age 12, Estrella’s own rise to stardom has only just begun.

Estrella started to dance as soon as she could walk. At 2 years old her mother, Josephine Gonzales, took her to Melba Ayco, artistic director of Northwest Tap Connection in Rainier Beach. Ayco told them Estrella was too young for the dance studio. But when Ayco explained that the daughter needed to be able to count, Estrella started to recite her numbers. When Ayco said she needed to be able to do a shuffle with each foot and demonstrated, Estrella began to mimic Ayco’s moves. “Estrella was the first one that changed the dynamic for me in my mind as to what kids who were younger were able to grasp in the arts,” Ayco recalled. The young child’s impressive foot coordination and precocious nature convinced Ayco to lower Northwest Tap Connection’s starting age limit from 4 years old to 2 years old.

After Estrella performed in her first tap recital at 3 years old, she was hooked. “It wasn’t like any other activity,” Estrella said. “I could express myself in my own way.” She started performing regularly with Northwest Tap Connection and continued to grow her newfound passion, joining other groups like “Moonyeka” Angel Alviar’s Little Brown Girls and award-winning dance group REMIX, serving as co-captain for Princesses of Elegance Drill Team, and becoming a Junior Seagal dancing at half-time for the Seattle Seahawks.

Estrella dancing at a 2019 Gullah Geechee Festival All White Block Party at the Northwest Tap Dance Studio (photo: Susan Fried)

As an adolescent, Estrella has now danced for a decade and shows no signs of slowing down. Estrella’s mother told her if she didn’t want to take classes anymore, she could stop at any time. “Instead of stopping, she’s increased,” said Gonzales. “She’s done more.” On top of tap, Estrella has expanded her repertoire to include modern, hip-hop, and ballet. Estrella’s zest for learning and relentless work ethic also pour over into other areas of her life. Along with 30 minutes of daily stretching and 2 hours of dance classes a day, she attends school from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and maintains honor roll status. She also enjoys taking drawing classes with her little brother online.

Estrella’s latest achievement, small interview snippets in Debbie Allen’s new Netflix documentary, happened because of her determination and a serendipitous sequence of events. In 2017, Estrella acquired her first tap scholarship with tap phenom Mike Minery. The scholarship won her a trip to DancerPalooza in Long Beach, CA, where she took classes for the majority of the convention. During the week-long festival, there was a daily dance battle in the front lobby. Estrella kept asking her parents if she could join in but didn’t have much time between classes, so the family moved on. On the second to last day, however, one of Estrella’s classes ended early, so she rushed down to join the battle. She won first place which got the attention of Rustin Matthews, CEO/director and creator of NRG Dance Project. He asked Estrella to join the NRG Dance Competition in New Orleans. 

At NRG, Estrella took more classes and met professional dancer Ava Bernstine-Mitchell, who invited her to Los Angeles to attend a dance class. Then, at the free master class at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) instructor and choreographer, Chantel Heath, pulled Estrella on stage to showcase her abilities. “I called her baby Beyoncé when I first met her in an outdoor class,” Heath said. “It’s amazing to see someone her age with an adult-like focus. In a class full of adults and children, she shined the brightest.” After mesmerizing the whole crowd with her movement Belinda Stith, secretary for the Board of Directors at DADA, encouraged Estrella to come out and audition for Hot Chocolate Nutcracker (HCN). “She’s got a very good stage presence,” Stith praised.

Estrella and Ms. Debbie Allen (photo courtesy of Josephine Gonzales)

Estrella’s parents flew with their daughter to Los Angeles where Stith directly introduced her to Debbie Allen and DADA director, Karen McDonald. Estrella then performed ballet for her Hot Chocolate Nutcracker audition. “I really didn’t think I’d get in because I’d never really taken ballet,” Estrella reflected. In fact, she only had a few hours of ballet practice under her belt from classes she took in 2018 at NRG. Despite that, Estrella received word of her successful casting as a toy in Toyland after the audition. “Miss Allen recognized a talented young artist and wanted to make sure she had an opportunity to fulfill her dream as a dancer,” McDonald said. “Miss Allen’s model for the school is to dream and do. She’s created a place where everyone can dance.”

A few weeks into production, Estrella’s father, Marcel Sanders, got an email asking for his daughter to audition for a new tap piece called “The Train” that renowned tap choreographer Savion Glover was creating for the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. After watching her dance, Glover decided to choreograph Estrella into two solos, one at the beginning of the piece and one at the end. “It was AMAZING,” said Estrella, “just … amazing.” When viewers watch the inspiring Netflix documentary, they get a small peek into Estrella’s experience performing in “The Train” alongside interviews with Glover. 

Participating in Hot Chocolate Nutcracker in both 2018 and 2019 required Estrella and her family to fly to Los Angeles every weekend starting in late September. When Estrella landed the additional tap piece, she was expected to come in for extra practice. “Miss Allen is very strict and professional. If you get into the show, she expects you to be there on time,” said Stith. “I don’t believe they missed a rehearsal. They are that committed to her dance. It was very impressive to me.” Meanwhile, school remained a priority despite the constant travel. “Renton School District was great working with us on it,” says Gonzales. At the end of the first year with HCN, Debbie Allen pulled Estrella’s father aside and incredulously asked him, “How are you doing all this?!” Sanders looked up and replied, “By the grace of God.”

Estrella laughing on National Tap Dance Day, May 25, 2019 (photo: Susan Fried)

While Estrella has put a ton of time, energy, and effort into her craft, she hasn’t gotten this far by herself. The talented young dancer is constantly being lifted up by an entire community who believe in her. Early on, Estrella’s whole family was involved with her home studio, Northwest Tap Connection. Her grandfather used his building and carpentry skills to help build the studio floors, her grandmother sewed costumes, and her dad helped with sound on performance nights. Estrella’s aunt, her aunt’s fiancé, and her mother made and sold lumpia and enchilada meals to fundraise for her dancing. There’s all the community members who contributed to Estrella’s GoFundMe campaign to pay for the week she spent at DancePalooza in Los Angeles. With HCN, both Estrella’s parents planned and managed her busy school, dance class, and travel schedule while balancing their own jobs. 

There’s also Estrella’s little brother Xavier, age 5, who is her loudest fan, hooting in the audience. There’s all of Estrella’s dance instructors who keep giving her encouragement even when she has felt unmotivated this year because of the pandemic. And of course there’s Ayco of Northwest Tap, who continues to guide Estrella not only as a dancer but as a young community member. When she found out Estrella made it into the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, she flew down with fellow instructor and Broadway performer Pam Yasutake to watch her first performance in 2018.

Both Northwest Tap Connection and Debbie Allen Dance Academy aim to nurture the holistic development of amazing people through the transformative process of dance. These values show in Estrella’s ability to stay not only laser-focused and dedicated but also grounded and gracious about her talent despite her rising stardom. Estrella’s instructors emphasize her drive and how she takes direction without complaint, immediately applying any critique offered to her. “I think that her talent far exceeds her chronological age,” McDonald said, “but at the same time she has the beauty and energy of a 10-year-old.” Ayco pointed out how Estrella thoughtfully thanks everyone around her after each performance, and Estrella’s dad says she takes her dance adventures in stride. “You have to pull the stories out of her,” said Sanders. “At the end of the day, she’s still the girl who comes home and brushes her doll’s hair. And that’s a good thing.”

Follow Estrella on Instagram @estrella.gsanders

Jasmine Pulido is a Filipinx American writer in Seattle, WA. You can find her blog at “Shameless Jas,” where she discusses all the topics people are too ashamed to talk about, alongside unapologetically airing anything else on her mind. She enjoys forest bathing, nerdy topics, and racial-social justice. Jasmine holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with an emphasis on ecology, behavior, and evolution and a minor in psychology from the University of California San Diego.

Featured image of Estrella at 2017 Northwest Folklife as part of the dance group REMIX, by Susan Fried

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