Getting To Know Sandy Arena; An Artist Healing Through Passion

You first met Che in Rochester works for actor Che Holloway, an impromptu interview and amble through the Neighborhood of the Arts.

An aspiring and successful actor, Che is deeply immersed in the Rochester cultural scene. So much so, we’ve named him Che of The Town!

Exclusively for Talker, Che has solicited and is conducting interviews from about 100 Rochestarians working in a diversity of creative fields.

For the full series, see Che of The Town: Interviews

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Photos courtesy of Sandy Arena

Tell us a little about yourself, where you are from, grew up, what H.S./College you attended etc. 

I was born in LaGrange, Illinois, but spent most of my growing up years living in the suburbs of Philadelphia on both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania sides. I was the youngest of five children and we lived in many homes and towns growing up, as my mother had a rambling spirit and moved our family around quite a bit. My father acquiesced to her need to drift, so off we went to a new town every few years. I developed an expertise at being the new girl in school – mostly out of necessity – and learned to adjust and be flexible depending on our destination at any given time. I lived on Long Beach Island, New Jersey (at the Jersey Shore) as a year-round resident (as opposed to being a summer resident) for my last two years of high school, and graduated from a high school there called Southern Regional High School. I adored the beach, the ocean and the clean, magical salt air.  I spent as much time on the beach as possible while living there.

I attended York College of Pennsylvania – a small, picturesque school in York, Pa. that lauded itself for offering public college tuition rates at a private institution. My college choice was attractive to me for several reasons: my older brother David also attended there and I found great comfort in his presence; and since I paid for much of my own tuition and food/housing expenses, it was an affordable option given my financial situation and responsibilities. I grew to appreciate the intimate atmosphere, the close friendships I made, as well as the educational community that was tight knit and caring. I participated in collegiate cheerleading, student government and the speech and debate team. Since I was paying my own tuition, I always held several jobs, including one working at our college library where I grew my love of books. I graduated cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in speech communications with a minor in marketing.ballet 7

What inspired you to be an artist/entertainer? Early experiences worth sharing?

When I was a little girl, my best friend’s mother always encouraged us to sing and dance. We put on shows for our neighborhood in the garage! I also remember visiting a dance studio with her where we were encouraged to creatively dance out our feelings. My father was a writer and deep thinker, and my mother was a singer, painter, writer and decorator. We always lived in a beautiful home and were surrounded by beautiful objects. In regards to my innate love of dance and movement, my parents enrolled me in a dance studio for only one year when I was about five years old, and I still remember my costume which was a pink leotard, a silver and white fringe skirt and matching wrist bands, and a pink cowgirl hat. I’m not sure why my parents did not continue professional dance training for me, but regardless, I was passionate about

movement as expression and would cartwheel and do splits anywhere and anytime it was appropriate. I even started a cheerleading team with another best friend while in elementary school. I did take piano lessons where I excelled, and remember singing solos and in choruses during my grade school and middle school years at church and at school.

I preferred movement over music training, however, and involved myself in as many activities as possible that focused on dance, fitness and movement, including becoming an aerobics teacher. Unfortunately, I never had the means or parental support to fully train in dance which was in my heart to do so.

I took a creative writing class my senior year in high school, and it became an important outlet for me when dealing with some difficult circumstances in my life during that time. Writing helped me gain perspective and provided a safe outlet for my emotions. I still have the essays I wrote, many of which were deep and melancholy. I can only imagine what my teacher thought of the content of my dramatic pieces! We did some fictional pieces, as well, and my most significant fictional writing piece was about a dancer living and working in New York City who was also an editor of a fashion magazine – all things I still love (dance, writing and fashion)! My fictional character’s name was Alex which – as it turns out and somewhat embarrassingly – I named my firstborn child a derivative of  – Alexis!

I continued writing in college studying speech communications and marketing/advertising. I completed my internship at an outdoor advertising agency and also did an in-depth senior project on First Amendment law.  Post college, I worked in public relations and also for an international commercial newswire in their Philadelphia office, and then switched to work for a small town newsroom for a weekly newspaper group as the lifestyle editor when I moved back to the sleepy, seashore town where I had spent my final years of high school. This was all before email or the digital age, so everything we did to produce our pages was via film and paper, and was truly “cut and paste” for layout purposes. I enjoyed the creative aspect of filling my pages each week, and doing the layout and design (even though it was manual), as well as writing feature stories about interesting locals making a difference in the world. I also did the obituaries and milestone announcements!ballet 5

Motherhood changed everything for me and was the impetus that sparked my entrepreneurial spirit. I returned to the newsroom after my first child was born, but after only a month found the daily struggle to send her to daycare too difficult to handle as I desperately wanted to be home to care for her and experience her every moment. The newspaper agreed for me to work as a freelance writer, and I was thrilled I could still earn money and take care of my child. I quickly purchased my first home computer – a jalopy of a machine that took up most of the space on my desk in our tiny, starter apartment. I branched out from that writing job to also write for different publications and began working as a publicist representing my clients to the media. I also wrote about 20 press releases a month for our local hospital which was quite boring, but paid really well comparatively! As a freelancer, I developed a voice and platform writing about motherhood and my adventures with my first child – this was all before blogging (and email for

that matter)! I would write my stories on my word processing program, print them out, and then send them via facsimile to the editors where the typesetters would re-key the articles. Those were the days where every word mattered.

Over the years,  my work expanded and I eventually opened a full service public relations and writing company called Envisage Public Relations and Marketing. I had a business partner who was a graphic designer, and we worked mostly with restaurants and chefs given our market location at the seasonal seashore that was sandwiched between two major metropolitan markets – New York City and Philadelphia. One of my professional highlights was securing an appearance for one of my chefs on the TV Food Network. Spending the day on the set was enlightening as we watched people paint food to make it look more appealing, and hung out with a woman whose only job that day was to powder my chef’s nose in between takes.

In 2000, my life took a drastic but positive turn when I married my wonderful husband Sam who was a lifelong resident of Rochester. We had met on a cruise in the Bahamas in the gym – two of the few fitness fanatics working out at the ship gym while the bon voyage party was going on. Our love grew and so did our family.  I gave birth to my second child – my son Caleb – and moved to Rochester, NY to support him and his job. I closed my beloved business and settled into the life of being a stay-at-home, non-income producing mom for the first time in my life. We had another child in 2004 – Annaliese – and my days were busy and fulfilling scheduling playdates and changing diapers with the “babies”, while driving our teenage daughter all over town. It was during this time also that my I fell in love with Jesus and accepted Him into my life as my Savior, and pursued the most beautiful relationship I had ever experienced with a living God. My art and my heart turned to glorify Him, and to raise my family.ballet 4

In 2006, I opened a faith-based ballet studio called Dance for Joy and traveling ballet company called Yahweh Ballet. It was a pursuit for my daughter who was 13 at the time so that she would have a place to train with excellence while also expressing her faith, and a higher calling for me. It soon turned into something even more – especially for me professionally and artistically. We opened with more than 100 students our first year, and through my work running the studio I developed a passion for storytelling about our faith as well as social justice issues through the art and discipline of ballet, live performance, songwriting and photography. I ran the school and ballet company until 2011 as a 501C3 offering ballet training for serious students, as well as outreach programs to serve youth in our city who were not afforded the opportunity to dance. I wrote several ballets finding the combination of ballet, lyrics and music to be a powerful, multi-media storytelling tools. I wrote and produced a ballet about homelessness; one about forgiveness; one about abortion; and another sharing the story of Jesus’ birth called Savior. My school was closed in 2011. My daughter Alexis re-opened the ballet studio as Mossa School of Dance. I am greatly involved in Mossa and helping her as a volunteer developing community partnerships and bridges, as well as serving as their promotional and live performance photographer, and occasional backstage and front manager.

One of the most significant projects I completed during my time as a ballet studio owner was writing and producing a live show that traveled through the United States and into Canada called

The Life Ballet. During this time, I also developed my God’s Girl Princess Pageant and Program, founded a charity event called Conner’s Game of Care in honor of Conner Newcomb who passed away from a brain tumor, wrote and recorded many songs, and grew my photography business. During this time, we also received funding from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation to host free community dance classes partnering with an inner city school. We worked extensively with

youth in our city sharing our love of dance and the good news of Jesus. We met and worked with so many precious children during this time including our twins Clyde and Claudia who were living in an unstable, impoverished environment at that time. We have since adopted the twins and they have become part of our family!

The Life Ballet was recently turned into a film adaptation called Arise Sweet Sarah with our association with Verb Records whom we met on the streets of Nashville doing street ministry (where basically you play music and dance on the streets with the purpose of connecting with people and showing them love) at a Christian rock music event there called Extreme Tour. We weren’t sure why a ballet company was invited to participate in this event, but we were open-minded about being part of it and about making this important connection. Arise Sweet Sarah was released in September 2015 in Rochester, NY and has been featured at film festivals and shown around the world. It is available on Amazon and other internet sites. I have had the opportunity to share the story of my film and show on radio shows around the world. Filming took place in Rochester in summer of 2014 where we filmed 80 hours in one week with a cast and crew of 70 people! We made Arise Sweet Sarah to reach more people with our message and to advocate our prolife, feminist beliefs through this film which uses a blend of music, dance, symbolism and narration to share a story of a woman who aborts and then lives to regret it. She suffers in silence from her experiences for many years, but eventually finds peace and healing through her faith. It is my own personal story of regret after abortion. I believe all human beings are precious and deserving of basic rights of life and liberty. I regret lost children as do many other people. Our film credits alone include almost 500 dedications of aborted children as submitted by parents and family members who regret their choice, while our website also shares letters of regret written by people post abortively (www.arisesweetsarah.org). Many women and men suffer after abortion, and we believe our country and its people deserve better than abortion when in crisis pregnancy.  Our show and film also shares a message aimed at helping people heal in the aftermath of abortion. We are believers and supporters of adoption as the loving option. My husband Sam was adopted and without the life giving choice his biological mother gave him, we would not have our family.

In addition to all of this, I am a songwriter who has written many faith-inspired songs and who wrote much of the original music for The Life Ballet and Arise Sweet Sarah. I am the author of the book Yahweh Ballet: Learning to Dance by Faith sharing my experiences in faith in heeding to the call of God in opening our dance studio. In 2009, I was named as one of the 175 Empowered Women in Rochester in honor of the city’s 175th Anniversary by the Rochester Genesee Valley Club.ballet 3

Talk about a time where you have faced adversity/conflict and have triumphed.

One of the most devastating experiences I have had in regards to my artistry and professional work was when my dance studio was closed. It was due to circumstances out of my control at the time, and it was an enormous shock to my sensitive, hardworking heart and soul. I had worked endlessly to build the studio, our programs, our student base and our physical space and it was hard to watch it slip away with very little notice. I thought it was the end for me professionally, and found it hard to muster up the energy that was required to close a business of that magnitude. I reluctantly self-encouraged and packed up and stored mirrors, floors, ballet barres, costumes and props, keeping out what was important to me beyond the studio with the current projects I had been working on at that time – mainly my traveling show The Life Ballet, and a popular class I was teaching at various satellite locations – my God’s Girl Princess class.

The interesting part of this process and what I learned in facing this tragedy is that although you may lose something important or have it taken away from you, purposing to search for the places of grace in the midst of the challenge will uncover hidden gems. My traveling show and the God’s Girl Princess class did not need the studio to exist, and after we packed up and took down 2000 square feet of “stuff”, the objects I needed to continue the projects that mattered most to me – the aforementioned ballet and God’s Girl class – fit on one, single garment rack in my basement! What initially seemed so devastating turned out to be freeing in the end, serving to simplify my life in a way that enabled me to fully concentrate on what was best. Someone once said to me that “good” can be enemy of “best”. The hard part is discerning what is “good” verses what is “best,” and then having the strength and wisdom to adjust your life choices accordingly.

In the end, The Life Ballet traveling show and its sister film Arise Sweet Sarah – my two greatest pieces of work in my life – would never have the had the success they have experienced had the studio not closed at that time.ballet 1

What do you believe sets you apart from other artists/entertainers?

I believe my faith, integrity, organization, resourcefulness and boundless energy set me apart. I believe in the power of vision and creative beauty, but there are other qualities needed to bring vision and beauty to fruition to fully make the impact artists have the power to make. You may have the most brilliant ideas and visions and be the most talented artist, but you must develop the above mentioned skills and character traits to bring them to life. I had a vision to write a ballet about abortion which was scary, daring and controversial, for example.  It would have never come to be had I not worked on it one step at a time with faith, integrity, organization, resourcefulness and a tremendous amount of energy to get it where it is today.

Do you have other interests or hobbies?

In my limited time, I enjoy decorating our home, gardening and cooking, and doing all I can do to create comfort and beauty at home for our large family. I try to exercise every day at the gym, at my daughter’s ballet studio, or running outside. I have run a half marathon and full marathon in my lifetime, and pretty much learned everything you need to know about achieving success in life while training for them! I am passionate about reading. My favorite book is the Bible which I believe is the most beautiful love story ever written. I am a home school mom to one of my four children and I love teaching (I previously home schooled all four of my other children at one time or another). One class I am teaching right now for the benefit of my middle school aged daughter is my Finding Rubies class which studies great women in history. It is based off one of my favorite scriptures in the Bible – Proverbs 31:10 (KJV) “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” Finally, volunteering is very important to our entire family. In addition to our work to help women and children in matters of life and crisis pregnancy, we have used our art and charity events to advocate and raise money for families impacted by childhood cancer, foster care children, homelessness and in working with adults with disabilities. All of our children are involved in charities we have started or in volunteering with other community organizations.

Any projects you have out or currently working on?

Well, I will preface all this to say my very wise daughter Annaliese advised me to “Stop being a butterfly and to be more like a spider.” She went onto explain that I was more like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, and it would be better to be like a spider and stay on one web! I am taking her advice into account, although I’m not sure I know how to do that because of my many interests! I am attracted to the beauty of the butterfly and flowers, and drawn to the intricacies of the web. Why can’t I be a combination of both?

Currently, I am working on growing my photography business and promoting my film through radio shows and events. We have an invitation to perform an excerpt of The Life Ballet this fall, as well as a radio show booking where I will be a guest on the New York March for Life radio to talk about my film. I hope to grow my Finding Rubies classes this fall for home school girls, as well as offer more enrichment classes including a worship dance class for girls. My youngest daughter does pageants and we are booking many volunteer appearances for her including a pageant fashion show I am hosting with several other community organizations in July. It will be held at the Penfield Y. I am 100 percent her Momager handling her social media sites and website. On the horizon, I hope to write a book about the making of The Life Ballet and Arise Sweet Sarah and a companion study and art based healing class that women can use as a tool towards self-exploration and healing after abortion. Finally, and hopefully this will be happening soon, we are hosting a pageant for girls in foster care.ballet 2

Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?

I would like to have another studio space where I can do all of the aforementioned artistic pursuits and share my faith and love of God through art. It would be very satisfying to redeem the closing of my studio in 2011 on one hand, and healing for my soul for that loss. Plus, I would love it. However, one thing I have learned about God and journeying in life with Him, is that He gives and He takes away and His plan for me is always the best plan (Jeremiah 29:11). As long as I am following the path He is lighting before me, I will prosper and experience no harm. That is a beautiful, peaceful and comforting way to live. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

What advice can you give to aspiring artists/entertainers?

I would say:

What you do matters and is very important. You have a special job to do and your gifts are rare. Use them well and with responsibility. Be strong and courageous and trust. Your gift to communicate truth and messages and to help others make sense of this world is powerful. Always use it to do good, uplift others, and make this world a better place. Let go of your insecurities. You are enough. They say art is in the eye of the beholder, so let go of people pleasing to that end. You won’t please everyone. With artistic gifts often comes a sensitive and fragile heart. Criticism may be hard to handle when you work in the public eye, but you need to toughen up and stand behind your art and ignore the naysayers. Remember that it’s okay to charge money. You are worth it. The Bible says a workman (or woman) is worth his or her wages, and if it says it in the Bible, I believe it to be true. And finally, dream on. You can achieve whatever you put your mind to and your energy behind.

How can we follow along in your journey?

www.sandyarena.com

www.arisesweetsarah.org

https://www.facebook.com/SandyCArena

All of my additional social media sites (Facebook Pages, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, Smugmug, Amazon and Vimeo are linked on these websites!)

SEE ALSO

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