Create, Reflect, Advocate, Repeat

Dance teacher moving with younger student

Jochelle Perena teaching at Luna Dance Institute / photo by Michael Ertem

Dance Teaching Artist is my primary job and Professional Learning Manager, my secondary role at Luna Dance Institute. The latter may sound more distinguished, yet teaching is where my heart is and where I hold the most pride. And it is my tenure as a dance teaching artist (DTA) that allows me greater impact as a manager. I can relate to the questions that artist educators bring to me because I have grappled with many of the same issues myself. Where my first-hand experience falls short, I draw from the collective capacity of my Luna teaching team. Our goal for Luna’s Professional Learning is to support dance educators so that they continue teaching and pushing the eld of dance education forward. How do we do this? Recently I spoke on a panel during the CreateCA conference in Costa Mesa, and the notion of the needs and identity of the teaching artist came to the forefront of my mind. As I shared Luna’s history of inquiry-based teaching and learning, I realized that what we’ve developed in twenty-five years of serving dance educators is explained through four essential prongs.

Build Community. Dance teaching artists often feel incredibly isolated. They may spend more time commuting from school site to studio, or from studio to an after-school program than they do actually teaching, and thus don’t always have the opportunities to make connections with colleagues at their sites. Or, if not commuting, they may be the only dance teacher at their site and this can feel lonely,  even disempowering. Finding colleagues who truly value dance and who have wrestled with similar questions is reaffirming and inspiring to a DTA. Our eld of dance education grows stronger when practitioners can connect to the expansive network of teaching artists.

To facilitate relationship building amongst educators, Luna ensures that all of our work- shops include group and partner conversation, and collaborative dance-making. We encourage workshop participants to stay in touch with one another, sometimes through virtual discussion forums, and invite them back for follow-up Practitioner Exchanges, where they can bring lessons they’ve tried, challenges they’ve come across, or ideas they need help expanding. Our annual Launch gathers a broader community of dance educators to celebrate the beginning of the school year, and often serves as an opportunity for us to connect teachers with similar interests and inquiries. Out of these initial interactions I’ve seen DTAs orchestrate their own informal communities of practice over dinner, observe each other teach, attend the National Dance Education Organization conference together, offer job recommendations, and support each other through the highs and lows of their careers.

Creative Rigor – inspire the artist within the teacher and the teacher within the artist. I sometimes hear teaching artists exclaim that, despite their role to inspire creativity in their students, they feel like the least creative teachers at their site. Their tried and true curriculum may have grown stale or administrative duties have overshadowed their teaching, and somehow they’ve lost touch with what brought them to the profession in the first place: the love of their craft.

And really, dance teaching artists have two crafts: dance and teaching. How can we continue sparking the joy for both? Each year we design new Professional Learning workshops around the questions both artists and educators ask during coaching and consultations. Integrating dance activities into all of our offerings has helped us honor the artists within the teachers we serve, and has aided in dance educators recognizing that their artist selves and teaching selves can be one in the same. One practitioner told me that to her surprise, “taking these workshops has actually made [her] a better choreographer,” a sentiment shared by more than one participant. Luna’s choreographer showcase, 20 Points of View, was partially inspired by the desire to celebrate the dance makers within our teaching community, and we introduced our Adult Creative Dance class to support educators in (re-)discovering their artistic practice. Going to a dance concert, the museum, or an improv jam is just as critical to a DTA’s professional development as attending a webinar or reading a research article, and we encourage it all. It all promotes practitioners seeing themselves and the world in a new way, and these fresh perspectives cultivate creative teaching.

Develop a Personal Reflective Practice. Choreographers often keep journals of their visions, scores and rehearsal notes. They watch dances live and on  video, ask for feedback in various ways, and consider how to edit and revise many times to meet goals. Developing a Reflective Practice in teaching can be much the same as in the dance-making process; it is personal and will evolve with each new project or inquiry question.

Reflective Practices are incorporated into all of our Professional Learning activities at Luna, and we also present it as a separate course, with the intention of helping practitioners grow more mindful in their teaching. It’s easy to lose sight of goals and rely on teaching habits that may no longer serve teacher or student. Workshops intersperse movement and discussion with free-writing questions asking artist educators to consider their values, fears, assumptions, goals and challenges, and get at the heart of where they are now, where they want to go, how they might get there, and what’s getting in the way. Luna provides support for practitioners to design their own questions – big inquiry questions that they might explore over the year, and smaller ones they might ask themselves each time they teach. In house, these questions have helped us critically and continuously check in with Luna’s social justice mission – are we teaching with inclusion and equity so that all children can come to dance?

As Luna helps teachers shape goals and questions, we also encourage them to observe their students regularly. For me, even two minutes of actively watching my students dance in each class has pointed to what’s working, what’s not, and what might be needed next. It can also be a rare moment of ‘rest,’ when I can sit back and see my students – their joy in moving, their perseverance through something challenging, their small shifts in participation from the prior week. Tracking these observations through journal writing, or notes on a lesson plan, can inform how a teacher approaches the next class, assesses progress over the semester, and contributes to developing a personal, ongoing investigation into one’s teaching practice.

Cultivate Advocacy. With the current political climate and the constant threat of arts funding cuts, dance education needs advocates in all forms, and for all audiences. Any sort of Professional Learning must provide opportunities for educators to strengthen their advocacy voices. “My principal doesn’t understand what I’m doing in dance class. How can I show her?” “The parents at my studio want to know why I’m focusing on improvisation rather than rehearsing for a performance. What should I say?” These are questions teachers ask, and though they often know intrinsically that dance has value, they may lack the confidence or language to explain why. Dance teaching artists need to claim their expertise. Sharing a favorite story about a student’s progress allows them to practice revealing dance’s positive impact. The same story, photographs or quotations, could be used in a proposal to an administrator, a grant report, or in a parent newsletter or social media post. These acts of advocacy help make dance learning more visible. These small acts of advocacy help make dance learning more visible, and prepare practitioners to communicate in larger contexts through dance or education journals and conferences.

Several individuals in our teaching community have started blogs, which have allowed them to interact with students, parents, administrators, and fellow educators all at once, while others have become active with the California Dance Education Association, even taking on leadership roles and addressing arts issues with state representatives.

“Do I really have something to say? I feel like I’m still learning.” I wonder this all the time, even in writing this piece. But I try to remember that no one has all the answers, and in some ways it is our responsibility as dance educators to keep the conversation going, amongst ourselves and with non-dancers – because who else will? As we exchange ideas and learn from each other, we strengthen our individual teaching practices and collectively become a force not just for preservation, but also for advancing our eld in innovative ways.

What I’ve realized in my own journey as a dance teaching artist, and in supporting my fellow artist educators, is how essential it is to view Professional Learning as a constant career practice, a verb rather than a noun. The very word Learning in its gerund form implies this active-ness and ongoing-ness. At Luna, we continue to investigate and inquire and discover from our own research teaching in the eld, but also from that of our peers. It can be exciting and challenging and rewarding, and also a little daunting to approach Professional Learning at first, because we may be reminded of what we don’t know. But we’ll also reconnect to what we do – our love of dance and of teaching – and through that, ourselves.


Luna offers the first two courses of our Foundational Series this summer, Developing and Implementing Dance Curricula – A as a week-long intensive July 31-August 4, and Developing and Implementing Dance Curricula – B as a semester course beginning August 29. Join us for our Launch September 5 to meet our community of dance educators. More information at lunadanceinstitute.org or email Jochelle, jperena@lunadanceinstitute.org.

PUBLISHED June 1, 2017

POSTED IN In Dance

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