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Exploring the Horizon: The Red Wind Within Us

dancers in redIn trying times of transition, a resurgence of art and activism allows room for renewed questioning of assumed certainties. The current political climate has created a pressurized environment where artists have used their platforms to contest and reimagine the structures we are operating within, and many have been looking into the past to further inspire what our futures could be.

The spirit of revolutionary renewal has been a continual force throughout time and has served as unending inspiration for Erika Tsimbrovsky and her San Francisco-based group, Avy K Productions. Whether tackling an individual’s experience of creativity, such as Nijinsky’s journal in Nocturnal Butterflies (2009), or addressing artistic movements throughout time, such as in Un-Still Life (2015), the collective’s multimedia, improvised performances invest in the possibilities inherent in the creative present.

An artist of Jewish and Russian heritage who was educated under the Soviet Socialist Republic, Tsimbrovsky combatted an embedded discomfort with revolution through the practice of improvised performance, drawing inspiration from artists of the Russian Avant Garde movement whose work challenged her to reimagine the possible. In her work to connect the innovative spirit of the Avant Garde movement with today’s political and artistic climates, Tsimbrovsky articulates that “we are a product of the revolution, of its errors and consequences. The passion of the romantic spirit of the revolution and pain of its destruction are inside our bodies.”

Ruah Aduma/Red Wind has been in process for Tsimbrovsky since 2005; it has lived in various iterations of her performance practice but has most recently been explored at SAFEhouse Arts in San Francisco, May 2017 and at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University in conjunction with her MFA thesis, June 2017. An hour-long installation/performance combining video, dance, poetry and live painting from Vadim Puyandaev, the work explores the undercurrent of the revolutionary spirit through time and specifically questions how the Russian Avant Garde movement can inform and contribute to artistic investigations today.

The Russian Avant Garde movement occurred between the 1890s and 1930s; Tsimbrovsky’s work focuses on themes of the movement that experienced a resurgence in America during the 1960s. Artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Velimir Khlebnikov, and many others were ignited by witnessing political, societal and technological revolutions to imagine new futures through art. The artistic legacies of many of the artists were stunted when the Soviet government came into power, causing a violent silencing of dissenters. The movement, which embraced challenging authority and questioning of who has the power to shape identity, was not viewed favorably by the Soviet Union. After this period, art became commodified into propaganda and artistic possibilities that invested in exploration, such as abstraction, were deterred. The Avant Garde had utilized many mediums to question certainty, dismantling codified forms such as poetry and painting and abstracting them as a means of research.

dancers in blue

Abstraction here becomes a means for envisioning possibility. In many ways the power to invest in abstraction was a spiritual awakening to otherness in the world and a resistance to given oppressive structures. During the resurgence of the Avant Garde movement in the United States, an investment in identity discourse and politics became a significant proponent of feminist possibility and queer empowerment. Developing discourse over both of these fields in the 1960s allowed for a further interrogation of the possibilities of abstract art. Queer and feminist forces were able to use abstract art as a means of perceiving and reflecting on radical change throughout their society.

Tsimbrovsky’s work engages dualisms that are not binary but contingent on each other for meaning; the horizon is created by the meeting of earth and sky, the movement of the work develops between form and force, we operate between understandings of the constructed and deconstructed, the meaning and meaninglessness, between Apollo and Dionysus. The balancing of opposing forces creates the zero point of happening. Between the certain(past) and uncertain(future) we experience the momentous present and all its innumerable possibilities, our own possibilities as individuals.

These dualistic ideas serve as the entry point to the structure of Ruah Aduma/Red Wind, connecting what Tsimbrovsky calls “flesh from the ancient past” and creating a new language to foresee a future ready for transformation. Abstraction when enacted through performance becomes a means of sharing an expansive exploration of the human subconscious beyond and within cultural borders. This shared experience, created through the collaboration of dancers, media and installation, hopes to reevaluate how the efforts of past artists inform our future.

“I believe we are experiencing another shift,” says Tsimbrovsky, “another time of change on all levels and in all systems.” During times of transition, when the future seems uncertain, the world can pulse with utopias full of potential. The culmination of these pasts, presents and futures within a performance seek to invest in the potential of the human spirit.


Avy K Productions present Ruah Aduma/Red Wind: Apr 19-21, Joe Goode Annex, SF.

Dancers Choice Award 2018 – Carla Service

A salute to movement. A glimpse into this region’s rich, diverse dance community. Bay Area Dance Week is back! From April 27-May 6, dance professionals, enthusiasts and fans will gather to participate in and witness a myriad of free events all over the Bay. And 2018 marks a milestone for BADW, its twentieth consecutive year.

Carla Service

During the festivities, some special honors are also announced: the Della Davidson Prize for choreography and the Dancers Choice Award, recognizing longstanding achievement in the Bay Area’s dance landscape. Dancers’ Group solicits nominations for every Dancers Choice Award, and this year, received a record 161. Past honorees include teachers, civic activists, dance companies and artistic directors. This year adds another esteemed individual to the impressive list of recipients: Carla Service, performer, choreographer, teacher, booking agent and, for more than three decades, a mentor to Oakland youth, empowering through dance. In a recent conversation, Service distilled her philosophy on movement to a single, powerful sentence, “if you have a heartbeat, you can dance.”

Writers often turn to phrases like ‘lifelong mover’ or ‘lifelong dancer’ to describe those who began their dance journey at an early age. When you learn about Service’s story, neither seems an adequate enough description. “I’ve always danced, rhythm was naturally in my head and body,” she recalls, “I was that kid, the one people were trying to keep from dancing and moving around.” Throughout childhood, dance and movement was something Service could depend on, for joy, or when she needed healing and escape. “Dance is how I survived a traumatic, abusive homelife; anytime I got fed up, felt alone or unloved, I would start dancing – in the midst of pain and anger, moving through space was something that brought me happiness,” Service shares.

Service never listened to the doubting, negative voices that told her to stop moving. She persevered, honing her dance practice in her community as opposed to a conventional studio setting. “In African American culture, dance is such a big part of the social experience; hip hop/freestyle movement isn’t something we learn in a classroom, it’s part of being together, in casual settings or at more formal gatherings and events,” she explains. Service’s talent was noticed early on and she embarked on a professional career at age seventeen. She began opening and headlining at nightclubs and discos in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, including the famed Studio 54 franchise, which had locations in both cities. This led to numerous movie spots and commercial shoots.

As bookings and gigs increased, Service felt compelled to question the status quo for dancers, “in the entertainment industry during the late 1980s, dancers were on the bottom of the totem pole, they often didn’t get paid and there was no representation.” She wanted to change that. At the same time, Service was feeling a deep call to engage with youth in Oakland (her adopted hometown), kids who were in a variety of challenging circumstances, and connect them with dance and movement. “One of the first young girls I worked with reminded me so much of myself,” Service recounts, “she had a troubling home situation and I wanted dance to be a safe place for her and others who needed it; a place that would start with the mind and go down to the toes, breaking down the lack of self-esteem and instilling appreciation, worth and love.”

Carla Service

With these goals on her heart, Service founded Dance-A-Vision Entertainment, an arts organization with a broad platform of artist advocacy, dance education and youth mentoring. Thirty-plus years later, Dance-A-Vision has expanded to include event production, entertainment consulting and choreographic commissions for both national and international stages. And the outreach program, which began with just a few youth, has grown into a renowned dance education arm, still going strong today at the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, formerly the Alice Arts Center, in downtown Oakland.

Officially named Carla Service’s Dance-A-Vision School of Dance, the current program offers three sessions per year (Spring, Summer, Winter), for students aged three and a half up to mid teens. To ensure that every child is met at the place where they need, each class is kept small with around fifteen students (there is always a wait list). Creative Movement, for the youngest students, combines expressive play with pre-ballet instruction, which Service incorporates for structure and posture. As students continue through Dance-A-Vision’s programming, modern and jazz are also introduced, but the heart of the school’s curriculum is the exploration of freestyle. “Freestyle is first and foremost – every human being needs to understand that they can move their body, they should move their body and there is no right or wrong when it comes to movement and rhythm,” Service relays.

At the end of each session, Service hosts a recital at Malonga to showcase what the dancers have been working on during the previous months. But that is just one of the many performance opportunities available to Dance-A-Vision students. In the first few months of 2018, they have performed at Oakland City Hall’s Black History Celebration, at the film opening of Black Panther in Emeryville and as part of the third annual San Francisco Movement Arts Festival at Grace Cathedral. Dance-A-Vision’s students also participate in various events that Service produces, co-produces and helps organize around the Bay Area, like the longrunning Oakland Art and Soul Festival (July 28-29), and the newer Oakland Dance Festival, which she founded, coming up during Bay Area Dance Week (April 28-29) in Jack London Square. “This is the first year that the Oakland Dance Festival [will be] a two-day event, with dance performances, classes, an audience dance party and a children’s dance festival on day two” notes Service, “it makes me very happy to see the audience experiencing so many different dance languages – different styles and different forms from different cultures.”

Carla ServiceBut for Service, Dance-A-Vision’s school is about so much more, and has been from the very beginning. More than steps, technique, choreography and performance; it’s about positive relationships, fostering communication and building confidence and self-reliance. “I want to see that the students are following through, and doing what they need to do to move forward in and out of the studio; I want them to question why they might be falling and to understand what falling is – not just literal falling, but things like grades being down or being too concerned with what someone else is doing or thinking,” she relays, “the kids may see it as just a dance class, but it’s really about life skills.”

Service doesn’t do the word ‘hope’ – “I don’t teach dream, I teach do.” In over thirty years of sessions, Service estimates that thousands of kids have gone through Dance-A-Vision’s school, and have experienced its empowering message of strength and resolve. Many alumni have gone on to successful entertainment careers, forming their own professional dance troupes and film companies, performing on Broadway and in the Cirque de Soleil, and some have even been inspired to open and operate their own dance studios. As Dance-A-Vision moves into its next decade, Service will continue imparting these lessons to yet another generation. “My job is to teach life through dance and the highlight of my existence (and career) is that through dance, I’ve helped raise some very happy and productive human beings,” adds Service, “they love themselves, they love life, and there’s too many people out there that don’t.”

BOYS IN TROUBLE: A Conversation with Sean Dorsey

Sean Dorsey is a dance-maker, activist, and trans advocate based in San Francisco. A founder of the Sean Dorsey Dance, Fresh Meat Productions and the Fresh Meat Festival, Dorsey and his family of talented artists who represent the breadth of gender expression have slowly chipped away at rigid social attitudes that influence who is celebrated in a performance setting. I spoke with Sean about his new dance work, BOYS IN TROUBLE, which premieres in April, and what changes in the dance field need to happen so as to fully and ethically embrace this moment when trans experience is in the cultural spotlight.


Roula Seikaly: Could you describe your current project?

Sean Dorsey: BOYS IN TROUBLE unpacks masculinity with unflinching honesty – from unapologetically trans and queer perspectives. We do this through full-throttle dance, super-vulnerable storytelling, raw emotion, irreverent humor and exquisite queer partnering. True Transsexual Confessions. An unabashed love letter between queer Black men. A sendup of all things Macho. A queer spin on butch-ness. Real talk about whiteness. An invitation to look deeply at shame. A witness to hurt and harm and heartbreak. A roadmap for another way.

We premiere the work April 19-21 at Z Space in San Francisco, and then launch a 2-year, 20-city tour supported by the National Dance Project and National Performance Network.

This project was commissioned by six theaters across the US (from Maui to L.A. to Atlanta), so I built the work after engaging transgender, gender-nonconforming (GNC) and queer people on the masculine spectrum during my community residencies in several cities. I hosted community forums, led participatory self-expression workshops and taught classes. The urgent, and sometimes explosive, themes that emerged from communities deeply inform this work.

When I began work on this project two years ago, I couldn’t have imagined how timely and urgent this work would be – we’re premiering BOYS IN TROUBLE right as America is grappling with toxic masculinity, the #metoo movement, and renewed attacks on trans and LGBTQ rights.

two dancers

RS: I was fortunate to witness you and the dancers rehearsing sections of BOYS IN TROUBLE. Does the work include some of what you performed at your home season last year as Boys Bite Back?

SD: We performed some early sections of this project as works in progress at our Boys Bite Back concert last year. Since then, it’s become clear what sections I would set aside and allow to rest, what needed development, and what was ready to emerge and be created. Ultimately, I’m shaping everything down into a 60-70 minute performance.

RS: That flows nicely into a question about previous performances and preparation. I prepared for this interview by reading press and watching clips of earlier performances including Outsider Chronicles, (2005), Uncovered: The Diary Project (2009), Secret History of Love (2013), and Missing Generation, (2015). These all seem to take 2-3 or 2-5 years to realize. How does that process unfold beginning to end? Do you start with music, or the idea? How does it progress for you?

SD: I always start with a conceptual frame or thematic lens for the work. That gives me a doorway into my creative investigation. It also creates the structure of what my community engagement process will be for that work. My fundamental belief is that art needs to exist for a reason, an important reason to be in the world. Otherwise, it might as well just be danced or created in our bedrooms. It’s always about the “why” and the “why now” and about “how” the work will impact communities and culture.

When I feel deeply called to dive into a question, that informs with whom and how I want to work. To create The Missing Generation, I recorded 75 hours of oral history interviews with long time trans and LGBTQ survivors of the early AIDS epidemic, and then spent 500 hours after that sitting with and sifting through transcripts, and creating the sound score.

For Boys in Trouble, I worked again in community and hosted forums on masculinity, listening to all kinds of conversations about masculinity. I held movement workshops that were supportive to trans-spectrum and gender non-conforming people, and also held some workshops that were open to anyone who identifies as masculine some or all of the time.

Also, in this process, my dancers are deep artistic collaborators. They’re a central part of the process, so that informs how I might develop a character for them, or a duet, or a section of dialogue. In this project, my dancers’ life histories really informed how their role in the work developed. As we created the talking section you saw us do in rehearsal, we had a lot of conversations around masculinity, whiteness, white supremacy and racism in America. We’ve also done writing exercises about these topics, which then sources an idea for movement, or may enter the show as text or as a recorded section of the score. My dancers have always been deeply involved in the creative process. They aren’t just bodies that show up to learn and perform choreography. They’re fully invested. It’s powerful and exciting.

RS: A follow on to that question: are there specific challenges, victories, or hindrances that you face consistently? I’m also thinking about funding, and how the flow of money to the arts and artists in this country is almost exclusively philanthropic. Have you noticed a change in that climate that recognizes the artistic value and quality in what you produce?

SD: I feel like three things are true. The first is that I make good work, and so I’m blessed that Sean Dorsey Dance and Fresh Meat Productions are supported by a group of significant and prestigious funders. Second, it’s true that as a transgender artist, me and my organization still have to prove ourselves twice as hard, or do twice as much, to receive the same amount of funding as cisgender artists/organizations. For example: in many cases we may be awarded a grant comparable to another organization, but that other organization is only a dance company or only an annual festival. We operate a nationally-touring dance company and a major festival. We provide fiscal sponsorship. We offer national trainings and workshops. We do teaching residencies. We advocate in the national field around trans exclusion.

The third truth is something that is very important to me. As a trans artist, activist, and advocate, I am painfully aware that we are at an important and dangerous moment in history. We’re in a time when the word and the phenomenon of “transgender” are on the lips of mainstream cisgender culture, including the dance field and the arts. So, the beginning of some awareness is there … but with zero trans leadership, representation, or support. Cisgender organizations are using the word ‘trans’ or gender themes for their festivals and conferences and events – but completely bypassing transgender and GNC people in the process. We’re not being hired, supported or brought into leadership.

This is one of the things that pushed me to expand my #TRANSformDance program to the national level. Through #TRANSformDance, we work with nonprofits, service organizations, funders, presenters, venues, and dance schools. We’re asking the field to start naming and recognizing the continuing exclusion of transgender and GNC people in dance as a CRISIS. There are specific barriers that are keeping my people out of dance classes and schools, teacher training programs, and admin, tech and programming positions. That gatekeeping extends to funding organizations and who holds the purse strings as well. This needs to be acknowledged and we need field-wide change.

America’s “trans moment” is happening without trans people in leadership, and that needs to be addressed. So I’m saying to cisgender people in the dance world, whether they are EDs or  administrators or choreographers or dancers or teachers or funders, that they are not ready to do trans-based programming or events unless they have trans people in leadership doing that work with decision-making power.

RS: You’ve toured and taught extensively, and in talking with you now, I understand that teaching accessibility is very important to you. You’ve met and worked with trans, queer, non-binary and GNC artists who, I’m guessing, have aspirations similar to yours. Do you give them advice? What do you say?

SD: Sean Dorsey Dance has toured to 29 cities, and I’ve taught in more than 35 cities. Whether in big cities or small towns, the conditions for a trans or GNC person wanting to enter the dance field are far less than favorable. Where I start when I’m teaching, regardless of the identity of the students I’m working with, is with a self-care practice. This might sound flakey or ‘Californian’ of me, but we desperately need this supportive practice as trans people.

What I experience every day as a transgender dancer and dance-maker is that EVERYTHING in my field tells me that my body is unusual or wrong, not suitable, that there’s no place for me. I don’t see myself reflected anywhere in my field. So I encourage my students and give them tools to create a daily practice that gives them positive messages about their bodies being beautiful and wise, that they have gifts to offer, because the greater external messages we are barraged by every day say that our lives are meaningless. That’s the place I start.

RS: You’ve emphasized the importance of teaching, community building, and mentorship in your practice, and that you look more to writers or visual artists as guides because there simply aren’t trans dancers or choreographers to identify as models. Given that, are there people in the dance world whom you look to, even though trans bodies are not represented?

SD: I think most people can’t imagine what it means to not see a single person like you in Dance … not onstage, or choreographing, or taking dance class next to you, or stage-managing, or running a theater. Although I always loved to watch dance, I really don’t feel like there was ever a “someone” who was my inspiration. I was in a kind of wilderness and so I starting making work based on my gut and my heart. I had to make the dances I wished I saw.

RS: Is there a desire, whether it’s welcome or something you resist, to be recognized in the form of awards or money from the formal or institutional dance world? Is that important to you?

SD: The most important thing for me is that my work succeeds at being accessible, beautiful, moving and deeply relevant for the audience, transformational somehow. And this is true for a transgender person as much as it’s true for a cisgender or heterosexual person in the audience. That’s what drives and feeds me. But I sure wouldn’t sneeze at something like the giant unrestricted artist awards that many of my cisgender peers have been awarded!

group of dancers

RS: I’m thinking about the role of language or spoken word work in your performance strategy. For you, or your dancers or we in the audience, is it explanation? Is it elucidation? How do you relate to that?

SD: All of my work features language and text. Not constantly, and not in all parts of my work, but that’s central for me. I’m a writer. I’m in love with language and storytelling. I love the smoothness or crispness or urgency of breath in spoken language. But language for me is not used as “explanation” in my work. It’s there because as a writer and poet, I love the relationship of language to breath, to our lungs and our diaphragm and our muscles as we’re moving. I know there’s still a tradition of “purity” in dance that says we “shouldn’t need text” to communicate in dance. I don’t believe that at all. As a human being, I use language and story in my every day life as well as in movement. It also creates a deep connection between the audience and myself.

RS: For someone who doesn’t know the context at all, is that getting closer to musical theater, or dance theater? Is that an accurate description?

SD: Dance-theater, sure. I use “dance-theater” often as a shorthand, but it’s not a perfect fit to describe what I do. It does indicate the use of story, or text, or character, and that’s important to convey.

RS: That leads directly to another question about description. You identify as a “dance maker,” maybe not “choreographer.” Is that an important distinction? How do you sort that out?

SD: I use the phrase “dance-maker” a lot, but I also say that I’m a choreographer, dancer, and writer. I like “dance-maker” because it feels active and activating. I feel like that’s what my work does. I activate my communities and collaborators to bring forward their stories and truths and bodies into the work.

RS: To wrap up, and thank you so much for speaking with me, the last year has been exceptionally challenging in this country for a host of reasons. We’re in the midst of what could easily be described as a cultural crisis. Do you see yourself responding to that as a trans person and a maker? Has the last year brought what you’ve experienced in 17 years into greater focus?

SD: The concept for BOYS IN TROUBLE was born several years ago, but the last year has deeply informed my work in community and our time in the studio. Friends and collaborators who are Black have talked with me about how their white, heterosexual, cisgender counterparts are suddenly becoming alarmed and aware of truths that they had long-known and lived in for years (starting with the white supremacy this country was founded upon). For many people of color, nothing is different now than it was a year ago. If anything, it’s gone from horrible to worse – but it’s not “new”.

So yes, we’re in a “crisis” – but America’s always been in a crisis, because this country was founded on crisis – namely: invasion, genocide, colonialism, slavery, internment, segregation, forced sterilization. Today it continues with deportations, anti-Black-and-Brown-immigrant hatred, talk about the “wall” and Islamophobia.Even though BOYS IN TROUBLE was born a few years ago, there are so many things that happened in the last year that for me as a white trans guy were crystallized, and I’m bringing that into the work now. I’m thinking of the ways we talk about whiteness, the way we talk about expressions of trans masculinity. There are things that are scary for me to bring forward, particularly my anger and righteousness as a trans person. But I’m ready to go there, all while doing justice to the work and the audience. I can’t wait to share this new work with audiences.

New View with Dazaun Soleyn

Dazaun Soleyn is a teaching artist and choreographer in the Bay Area and is artistic director of Dazaun graduated from the University of South Florida with a BFA in Modern Dance Performance and Choreography and subsequently became a Trainee at the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program. He has performed works by Sidra Bell, Kara Davis, and Maurya Kerr and was a company member of Robert Moses Kin. Dazaun’s teaching credits include the Alonzo King LINES Ballet School, University of South Florida, Gibney Dance Center, America’s Ballet School, Dance Mission Theater, and ODC Commons. Dazaun was featured in Red Medjellekh’s popular Dancers Vs. Trump dance film.

The mission of is to create holistic art that illuminates the dynamic fullness of the human soul. Dazaun cultivates a movement playground for artists to create work that investigates new perspectives of the human experience on stage.

How did you start dancing?

To be honest, I have been dancing since I was a baby. There is a VHS of my 1st birthday party where you will see little smiling Dazaun giving a strong bounce for a solid 2 minutes, and I swear I was on beat! I watch it now and gratefully say to myself “… That was the seed that started it all.

What’s an early (or favorite) dance memory?

Oh man, there are so many. I am actually smiling so hard right now. My favorite dance memories are typically awkward, now laughable, situations that my friends and I got into because we were determined to get the step and being READY for the stage! I specifically remember my best friend, a classmate, and myself had three days to create a new piece, for a college showcase, and all the studios in the dance department were booked. So our next best option was outside… on the concrete… with our sneakers… and my speaker… in the Florida heat… dancing for our lives!

Dazaun Soleyn

What project are you working on, and what are you eager to share about this project?

I am currently working on producing existence, my company’s first show and it’s set to premiere at Dance Mission the weekend of April 20th. With this work, I am using my background in hip-hop, contemporary and floor techniques to reveal the complex beauty of the minority experience with code switching.

What I am most eager to share about this project are the artists that I get to work with. They are incredible! They are living, breathing demonstrations of passion. These humans are incredibly versatile, luscious, generous, nuanced, expressive, pure raw talent. Thank you Giordan (Gio) Cruz, Claire Fisher, Suzette Sagisi and Linda Steele.

Describe what it’s like to live and work in the Bay Area right now.

Absolutely amazing! The Bay Area is perfect for me. Living here allows me to have a rigorous career grind while still doing some deep soul searching and healing during a Tuesday night hike. To be honest there are always deadlines to meet, emails to answer, 16+ classes a week to teach, rehearsals to direct, while still trying to drink enough water, be a vegetarian, foster a healthy love life, and be a vessel for God to use on a daily basis. It’s a lot, but for me it’s the type of environment that I strive in. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world but don’t get me wrong, I want to experience the world. (All of it!) The Bayhas also gifted me with a group of friends and mentors that are willing to support my ever evolving career. They consistently push me to produce my highest quality of work, while giving me more shoulder to cry on then I can count. haha

What’s your neighborhood/community? Where do you spend your time?

I live in Oakland near Mills College but all of my jobs are in San Francisco. To be honest, I feel like my neighborhood is my car. Traffic is my lover and friend. My car, Bae, is where I spent most of my time. Bae is the only way that I can make it from a rehearsal at ODC that ends at 3:30pm to Vis Valley by 4pm to teach a youth hip hop class. I don’t mind the time in my car because it allows me to listen to Shonda Rhimes on Audiobook, Tasha Cobbs-Leonard, SZA, and Oprah… lots of Oprah.

What’s a hope that you have for the arts ecosystem in your community?

My hope is that spaces for art making remain accessible/affordable for the art makers. Also, my secret wish is that one day we will have a system like “class pass” but for shows. We can call it “show pass.” With your “show pass” people would pay a monthly fee and they could go see as many dance shows as they wish. It will be simple, you pay your fee, flash your “show pass” at the box office and boom: artists can support artists without sacrificing dinner or rent money.

What event(s) will we find you at this spring?

You will find me dancing for my life at my company’s first show, existence.

The LINES Ballet Training Program Showcase on May 26th.

The Duhnam workshop at Dance Mission this spring, sweating for/with my ancestors!

What (or who) is inspiring you right now?

Love is my biggest inspiration. For me, it is the most powerful and beautiful teacher that we have in this realm.

I am also inspired by SZA, her talent and the vulnerability on her latest album, Ctrl, shifted my views on storytelling. My best friend Alexeya EM, she’s a true artist that can literally do anything, and she is one of the main reasons why I work as hard as I do. Also, I recently got introduced to Shigeru Ban’s architectural works. He is incredible, set a reminder for yourself to look him up.  

What’s a piece of advice have you been given that you still hold on to today?

“if there’s not something in your life that pushes you to the point where the pee is running down your leg then you ain’t living big enough… if you know everything and if you’re in charge of everything you ain’t living… that why you gotta trust your God [and allow your dream to] push you beyond your comfort zone and take you out of the know into the unknown with faith and trust in yourself” – Auntie Iyanla Vanzant

Grrrl Brigade, 15 Years of Social-Feminist Dance

Grrrl Brigade is a dance leadership program that fosters female empowerment through dance. Based out of Dance Mission Theater, Dance Brigade’s Grrrl Brigade has instructed more than 500 girls over the last 15 years in modern dance, taiko drumming, hip hop, belly dance, performance, self-empowerment, and social justice rooted in feminist thought. 45 Grrrls have attended Ruth Asawa School for the Arts in various disciplines.

Grrrl Brigade has performed throughout the Bay Area and greater California, being featured at One Billion Rising, Walk Against Rape, Women against War, the De Young Museum, CounterPulse’s Blessed Unrest Festival, the San Francisco International Taiko Festival, Carnaval SF, KQED Art’s Creative Resistance Salon, SF Public Library, and the first biennial Mission Youth Arts Festival.

In celebration of Grrrl Brigade’s 15th anniversary April 28-29 at the Cowell Theater, this article was co-written by Marivel Mendoza and Emma Miller. These young women attended Dance Mission from the time they were three years old until they graduated from high school. They attended School of the Arts in Dance and they continue to work and be leaders at Dance Mission Theater, teaching in both the Youth and Grrrl Brigade programs.

young woman dancer

Marivel Mendoza: In the woman operated building of Dance Mission, there brews the fierce force of the Grrrl Brigade. Established in 2004, Grrrl Brigade’s mission is to arm girls with feminist wisdom to face the world confident and empowered in their own voices and visions. The program focuses not only on dance, drumming, and performance technique, but it also includes reflective discussions and inclusive work around the social issues that young woman are facing in our local communities and world. These feminist ideals have helped guide young women, and have planted a seed of deep devotion for all of us to work towards helping other young girls have the confidence they disserve.

Emma Miller: Having programs like Grrrl Brigade is important for the community, but especially for the Bay Area’s urban “grrrls”. For the vast majority of the girls in the program it is a second home. There is a sense of comfort when you enter Dance Mission—the vibrant painted walls invites everyone to dance and relieve stress without judgement. Grrrl Brigade is a sisterhood and no one is turned away due to their identity, size, or ‘natural’ dance ability.

MM: I was a founding member of the Jr. GRRRL Brigade, for ages 9-12 years. Before then, Grrrl Brigade was just for teens. I was entering Jr. GRRRL Brigade from a slightly conservative Mexican household, with very traditional ideals of what it meant to be a woman. At Dance Mission I had the freedom to be more than what was expected of me and even to experiment with what I believed in, moving away from just accepting what I was told. At that young age it was the only place where adults cared about how I felt about the way the world was moving around me. I was asked about how I felt and they truly cared to know my ideas on how to make a difference.

EM: I started coming to Dance Mission when I was three years old and continued attending throughout my childhood, exploring a wide range of classes like taiko drumming, hip hop, belly-samba and modern dance. When I turned nine, I was finally old enough to be a part of Jr. Grrrl Brigade. At the beginning of my freshman year in high school, I started working as a dance teacher’s assistant for the same Creative Movement class that I took as a toddler. At the end of high school, I was offered a teaching position in the program and I officially started teaching in the fall of my first year in college at the University of San Francisco.

MM: Dance is a vulnerable medium. There is no anonymity, and it is too obvious if faked or done only half way. Dance is an organic way to teach girls and youth about facing fears and being courageous. As a teacher I’m trying to create unafraid, unapologetic artists for the future who will not shy away from telling their truths. GRRRL Brigade has taught me to be brave in my truth, and be vocal with it so that others may find comfort and solidarity with it also. Live performance takes this a step further by pulling emotions directly from the audience and using that as fuel to give more, in a constant cycle of exchanging energy. Dance is daring, and as a dancer I am lucky to be empowered through making and sharing my art. I am grateful every day for Grrrl Brigade’s trust, guidance, and generosity in their teachings of how to be a productive woman in our world.

EM: Being a part of a junior company like Grrrl Brigade, requires a particular type of discipline. Girls learn to be accountable for their own actions, contribute to a group effort, manage their busy schedules between school and dance, and how to take care of themselves: physically, mentally and emotionally. Having such strong bonds between girls, no matter the age, is a crucial aspect of the program and is significant in the girls’ socioemotional development. The constant love and support between students, teachers and parents is what draws families back to Grrrl Brigade year after year.

The concept of female empowerment is a fundamental element of the Grrrl Brigade program. For young women today, female empowerment comes in many forms. It is finding the courage to stand up, use your voice and know that you can make a difference in society.

Throughout the generations, the notion of female empowerment has transformed. Women have progressively been fighting for equality and are gaining more rights. Even so, the struggle is not over. We have recently experienced a surge in women expressing their inner strengths and are taking the opportunity to be vulnerable and be truth tellers, despite the backlash. The movement to tear down the patriarchal status quo still continues.

Grrrl Brigade has given me the opportunity to have strong female examples while being a student in the program, and now has given me the opportunity to be a role model for my own students. I am fortunate to experience seeing students go from youth program to Grrrl Brigade, as I did years ago. I am grateful to be a part of a feminist community that uses the arts to bring awareness and advocates for social justice, and pushes towards global peace. I am proud to be a part of a social movement, such as when I participated in One Billion Rising , Eve Ensler’s worldwide campaign that aims to use the arts to bring an end towards rape and violence against women. I am also fortunate to be exposed to the San Francisco dance community at large, and was fortunate to join Dance Brigade in celebrating its 40th year anniversary last winter.

group of young women dancers

Nasha Harris Santiago, my peer and a graduate from Grrrl Brigade who now is a freshman at Boston University says, “To me, Grrrl Brigade, means family, sisterhood, and using our love for dance to help make a difference in this world. Grrrl Brigade gave me a community and group of friends I know I will have for the rest of my life. Grrrl Brigade helped me realize my worth as a young girl and now as a young woman.”

Another member of Grrrl Brigade who graduated in 2016, Miya Herstein describes the program as “an unwavering energy.” She continues,  “It doesn’t matter where our grrrls travel or what obstacles we find ourselves up against; we can always channel this force. Grrrl Brigade fostered my growth, served as a comfortable escape from life’s tribulations, and provided me a medium to express myself. It is my roots, my sustenance, my motivation. Without it, I would be lost. Without it, I would not be me.”


Marivel Mendoza is graduating this May with from SF State with a B.A. in Dance and a minor in Education. Emma Miller is on schedule to graduate 2020 from USF with a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Performing Arts and Social Justice with a focus in Dance. Both have performed professionally with Dance Brigade and Alayo Dance Company on stages large and small, including YBCA, Laney College Theater, and Dance Mission Theater.


cover of In DancePicture the scene: my 16 month old daughter hands me a book. We read it together (it’s short, so that doesn’t take long) and she’ll immediately shove it back towards me. “Read it, again,” the gesture means. And again after that. She is engrossed by the images and words slowly making sense with all of the repetition.

Another time, she stands on the floor in front of the couch and tosses a leg up. She clumsily scrambles her way to sitting. It’s hard work; the couch is still a little too high for her to climb up effortlessly. But before she can even take a breathe, back down she goes just to toss her leg back up to climb once more.

These are familiar scenes to anyone who’s spent time with young kids. We adults sit back and are at awe by the gleeful perseverance on display. Children seem to live by a maxim that can too easily be forgotten as we get older – driven by pressures to always be embarking on a new project, climbing a career ladder, or checking something off as mastered. Practice is fun!

I don’t remember the squeals of laughter I cried as a toddler, but I sure know that feeling of exhausted elation when a dance teacher calls out “One more time!” at the end of a class. The music turns up, I laugh at the idea of pushing my sweating body forward to launch into movement, and I dig deep into my body’s reserves of energy to go again. Each time with a little more ease and joy.

For dance-makers in the Bay Area, practice is too often a luxury, both in the rehearsal studio and on stage. Many funders support only new work and world premieres, which makes revisiting repertory all the more challenging and puts pressure on artists to condense creative processes in order to continually be making something new in time for the next grant deadline. One-night only or a single weekend shows are the norm. Two weekends if the stars aligns. Runs longer than that are rare. Touring elusive.

This makes Sean Dorsey’s upcoming 20-city nationwide tour of BOYS IN TROUBLE all the more thrilling. Not only is the work’s theme of exploring masculinity from a trans perspective vital to share with a broad audience, it is an opportunity for the artists to deepen into the work during their extensive tour. A performance practice that will surely evolve the work and the performers’ approach to it.

Dorsey is not alone in his multi-year creative process. Avy K Productions’ upcoming performances of Ruah Aduma/Red Wind also reflect long-term focus. Led by Erika Tsimbrovsky, the improvised performances are a manifestation of over a decade of performance practice. Learn more about this work.

Prior to a work getting to the stage (or park, community center, or library) dancers hustle to afford the ever-increasing price of classes and workshops. This month offers a break for budgets: it’s time for Bay Area Dance Week. The annual festival of no-cost dance is here, and with it come hundreds of opportunities to move your body. The majority of events are classes and workshops, in an impressive list of forms from around the world.

So whether your dance practice is about digging deep into the subtle technique of Argentine Tango or seeing how an emerging form like Angola’s Kuduro could inform your knowledge of hip hop, Bay Area Dance Week is a chance to celebrate a life of dance. To be clumsy. To get sweaty and try it again. To be in process. To practice. To have fun!

SPEAK: Wax Poet(s) Explores the Body in Resistance

Two dancers reaching with the back of their hands

Heather Stockton and Garth Grimball / Photo by Yvonne Portra

Let’s talk about rage. Are you numb?

Did it ever seem possible to be afraid of your phone? Dread checking the daily news; feel compelled to remain abreast of current events in the aspiration of being an active citizen; feel guilty for not doing more; fearful of effects whose ripples and repercussions can’t be fathomed; angry at the fear itself as much as the cause of the fear; rage towards the ache of voicelessness and the endless consumption of information the keeps you from being the active citizen you aspire to be?

So began a conversation Heather Stockton and I held with our collaborating dancers in a recent rehearsal for our upcoming show, Swivel:Hinge:Return. It’s a necessary conversation. A conversation we planned on, anticipated, and were hedging to articulate. At this writing, we are at the halfway point between the start of rehearsals and opening night. We are speaking not only to our dancers and collaborators but our friends. Their stories, experiences, and bodies are our show. The line between choreographer and collaborator, friend and associate, is blurred, complicated, and challenged in the safest of environments. Creating dance work to explore how the body processes current events and how we embody our emotional and physical responses requires a trust equal in empathy and equity.

Our first choreographic charge to the dancers was to create a solo as guidebook. Instruct us on a self-care practice through embodied movement. Each creates “info-solos”, and the seven of us share our body pamphlets, which evolve into a choreographic throughline in the work.

Discussing and embodying rage necessitates its own choreographic process separate and unique from our solos. Asking the same process and outcome of each diminishes both. Our conversation on rage begins with all eyes taking stock of non-verbal responses to the subject. Is everyone feeling up to it? One dancer expresses an inability to engage verbally on rage in this moment. As artistic director, Heather acknowledges this conversation does not have a desired outcome, a pre-set path, nor an expiration date. Opinions and anecdotes emerge dissecting the origins of rage; rage as groupthink or mob mentality; what follows rage; the usefulness of rage; how we can embody rage choreographically through continual movement investigations. The word “rage” creates a constellation of responses central to the enigma of our concept: how does a body perform resistance? And what effect does the performance have?

“Common to all people of this age is the fact that more is weighing on them than they can bear; no one is equal to his or her burden. Never before has life been so heavy for people; just to exist, they muster an effort that goes beyond their strength.”

Austrian writer and critic, Hermann Bahr’s proclamation of life in 1900 echoes into the collective anxiety of our current social climate. The upheavals, conflicts, and injustices of today all have precedent in the past. Yet, each has never been more visible, debate has never been more public, “sharing” is no longer the reciprocity we teach children. How does the body respond to the barrage of “breaking news” updates and calls to show up, to protest, to contact legislators, to donate? How does the body weather this deluge that at best galvanize us to unified action and at worst feeds the cycle of “couch protests” or passive resistance in this social media era?

How is a body most effective at performing resistance in this time?  

And is garnering an audience a good way to change minds and hearts or the best way to build unity?

And what is a “body” anyway? Myriad classifications of the body exist and each can be radicalized: a body of people showing up in solidarity; a body of work being exalted or destroyed; a political body versus a social body; the body politic; a body becoming a political landscape on which ideological lines are drawn.

These questions and concepts drive the practice and conversation forming Swivel:Hinge:Return. The stories of our bodies are not unique. They are singular. Our resisting is part of a tradition of movements, of populations that extend across time and geography. Art as a tool for dissent and catharsis exists in every artistic medium. We are not providing answers. We are not claiming new ground or dictating values. We are creating a container to process.

“The practice of having words mean nothing.”  

This is activist Masha Gessen’s description of rhetorical tactics used by leaders to obfuscate democratic processes. In our processing, can we queer it to our advantage? If the virtue of dancing, of choreography, is being apart from verbal language, can we create without the threat of our words being turned into nothing? In processing our physical responses to current events, in weighing the best use of our time to be part of effective change, in cataloging breakdowns of civility, in feeling our heartbeats accelerate each time we let the outside in, perhaps the strength lies not in language but in our bodies.

Rage can be useful; it can be a salve. Rage can also rob us of our individual freedom to care for others. In our “processing container” we care for each other verbally and non verbally. Verbal and nonverbal practices enhance our rehearsal process beyond creating movement and constructing choreography. From the designated physical warm-up and verbal check-ins on the state of our bodies to collective ceremonies. Each collaborating artist is given space to investigate and time to respond. It is exhausting and fruitful. We end each rehearsal in a circle commemorating three things we accomplished and honoring our accomplishments with one unison clap.

We started Wax Poet(s) five years ago as a laboratory. Since our first performance in November, 2013, our mission remains to invite artists from different mediums to collaborate, to create new work, and to be uncomfortable with one definition of who we are and how we create. Our intent is empowering bodies and creating space for artists. Comparable to the relationship between collaborators, our container is amorphous. Every body processes in its own way. A person is a process. Rage is just one of the emotions we are exploring, and our container, like our bodies, will support us in our creation.

In Practice: Christy Funsch

Five women holding an historic photograph

Laura Elaine Ellis, Courtney Moreno, Chinchin Hsu, Chris Black , Aura Fischbeck in Mother Sister, Daughter, Marvel / Photo by Christy Funsch

Last December, I took a one-and-a-half-hour “Choreographic Tools” workshop with Christy Funsch at Shawl Anderson Dance Center. One and a half hours is not a lot of time to make work, but Christy is very good at time management.

We began with an exercise Christy called “Building” (influence: Julie Mayo), 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-minute improvisations that are “maybe towards making a phrase.” Christy admits to being very cautious about the word “phrase,” noting that it can be a “structure that gets in the way,” making her panic about beginnings, middles, and ends, about the trajectory of a piece: “It’s too early for that.” In fact, she tries not to do phrase material in her choreography: “If I see it in technique class, it shouldn’t be in my choreography. There are phrases but they are not organic, not concerned with conventional pathways of momentum or tried and true pathways of movement efficiency.” Christy suggested we use one minute to arrive, 3 minutes to ask what’s happening in the body, 5 minutes to explore what is interesting about what is happening in the body, and 10 minutes investigating one of those tiny interesting things. I got very interested in digging my elbows into the floor and then shouting “Timber!” in my head as I let my forearms fall; the palm makes a nice slapping sound on marley, in case you were wondering.

Christy started performing and making work in the Bay Area right about when I started writing here, so my eyes watching her perform have grown up with her performing. She has long matched an understated, anti-spectacular performance personality with breathtaking precision and subtle wit. These qualities bear out in her teaching as well. During the workshop she offered a poetics of movement exploration, a process of “disclosing a state, quality, body part, mood, memory, functional basic body action,” that felt accessible in no small measure due to the way she awkwardly (her word) inhabits her position of “power in the working room.” She told us, “I have a practice but no authority. I’m following and challenging my own interests in making work.”  Like Ann Patchett’s essay “The Getaway Car,” Christy’s workshop was not “an instruction booklet,” but rather “an account of what I did and what has worked for me” (Patchett). Not a manual but a way of holding our hands nonetheless.

Like her performance persona, Christy balances her sharp intelligence with a genuine humility. There is a fierceness that accompanies her shyness, which made me trust her in the vulnerable space of dance making. We learned that she never starts with an idea that she wants to make manifest in movement, something she finds “patriarchal, belittling.” She finds the idea in the movement—“What’s in the body right now?” We wrote together (influence: Tere O’Connor), showed each other excerpts of our (non-)phrases, danced together, meditated together (influence: Daniel Nagrin). Christy’s got tools and she knows how to use them.

Recently, we’ve seen a lot of Christy on stage with Nol Simonse—“17 years working together; I consider him a brother and soulmate.” Their duets are a demonstration of the gorgeous ways opposing movement qualities can work together as rituals of intimate interaction. This April, Christy and her company Funsch Dance Experience will celebrate 15 years of dance making in the Bay Area with a full-length work entitled Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel (MSDM), co-produced by ODC Theater. At the time of this writing (January 2018), Christy wasn’t sure Nol would physically appear on stage, devoted as it the piece is to “10 women dancers and pillars of the current Bay Area dance ecology.” But she assures us that he is present in the work: “All the work I’ve made has been in conversation with Nol, directly or indirectly. It’s been really hard for me to make work without him in it and yet I feel like I must do it sometimes. It’s my effort to grow. But maybe that’s some kind of capitalist default. Maybe instead of growing it’s to do the deeper thing and stay with this movement partnership we have and ride it for all its worth, for as many years as we have left together.”

Christy was not only unsure about Nol’s role in MSDM—she wasn’t even clear about her own: “I just wrote myself a note in my notebook, ‘Christy maybe you’ll actually choreograph some material for this piece.’ For this new work, I haven’t come in with a lot of made, sequenced movement material that’s come from my body. I’m asking, Where am I in this?” I asked if she was experiencing a mini existential crisis around the work: “I wouldn’t call it mini. I started in the fall with the new work to generate the material, and I was doing an all-consuming project with Nol, so I was having dancers generate a lot of material. I feel good with the situational choreographic moments we have and the interrelatedness of the figures within the piece. But the vocabulary and risk to myself and my phsyiological intimacy with the new work isn’t really there yet. So in the past couple weeks I’ve come up with a plan to address that.” And what’s the plan? “I can’t say what the plan is! I’ll say what it is knowing that the whole thing will collapse at any moment.” And yet, there’s a plan: “It’s a structural pathway. Stuck with where I am in the work, it’s easier to think of myself as a structural rather than content component, if I work in some interstitial way, in and out of the piece, constructing 20 moments, maybe I’ll use six or something. I’m in out, it’s a blip and then gone, I’ll talk about something, have an experience, draw from my own child movement experience as I have asked the performers to do. I trust that there is a relationship between my body and the work. It’s there, but I have to unearth it. I’m just worried it’s January and I haven’t seen it” (laughter).

Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel is constructed out of two types of bodily archives: embodied memories drawn from a cast of Bay Area dance artists over the age of 40 (Chris Black, Laura Elaine Ellis, Aura Fischbeck, and Nina Haft), and photographs of the California Dancing Girls, an early 20th-century San Francisco dance troupe directed by Anita Peters Wright. When Christy encountered the California Dancing Girls archive in the San Francisco Museum of Performance + Design, she felt as though she had come face to face with the women who “made possible what we’re doing.” The “we” here refers to Bay Area women choreographers from Judy Job, Anita Peters Wright’s niece (and Christy’s Tai Chi teacher) to Margaret Jenkins, who studied at the Peters Wright School of Dance to her current collaborators: “I’m interested in the personal histories and early movement memories from a cast of women who are mostly over 40, who identify as mothers, teachers, administrators, producers, dancers. In my estimation, they’re the connective tissue of the Bay Area dance ecology.”

Although Christy and the dancers occasionally take shapes from the photographs to choreograph the work in rehearsal, the project is more about a “way of being with these women, conjuring a connection to our maternal past. How am I reaching back into history to access and pay homage to this particular group of women and how am I making a contemporary piece? Where is my own physicality, my own body, my history situated in the piece?” To answer these questions, Christy has asked her guest collaborators to remember, reenact, and reinvent movement histories, real and imagined. Nina explored early memories of improvisation and flamenco guitar music, while Chris was asked to write a fictionalized account of one of the women in the photographs: “We’re not using the text. I don’t want to read it. I wanted her to have a private thing, to find ways for her as a performer to inhabit the material with this text that was personal and lodged in language.”

Also involved in the work are two longtime Funsch Dance Experience collaborators, Chinchin Hsu and Courtney Moreno, who “serve a different function in the work”: “What’s driving me in the room are Chinchin and Courtney and the relationship we have built over the past few years. We can go to places physically that I find exiting. Conceptually, they’re this river of time, they’re not themselves, more this embodiment of ongoingness. This is the connection to Funsch Dance history, not just the superstars coming in for this work. They’re the meat and potatoes of my choreography.”

It wouldn’t be a conversation with a Bay Area artist if the issue of space and cost of living didn’t come up. “What’s heartbreaking is, in production, all the money is going to space. I’ve been on the cusp of leaving San Francisco for 20 years. It’s healthy to constantly reexamine and challenge the parameters that you’re making work in. There’s a crisis of space here, and it would be great to take some power back there. I can see not producing, but I can’t foresee not making dance. It’s the way I reorganize space, take power from constructs that are made without my permission; the way I investigate power, gender, momentum, physics, humanity. If I didn’t have any money and I had to do that kind of investigation with my own body and with whatever limitations of space, I still would. If it came to not being able to make work here anymore, I would leave.”

Happily for us, for now, Christy is staying: “I am feeling fierce, I am shedding, I am pushing on.”

Teaching Partnership, Discovering Empathy

What does a dance class for students with and without disabilities look like? Can it build a climate of empathy at a public school? How might it be a vehicle for individual creative freedom?

It’s nine on a Wednesday morning and the East Oakland sun has made its full debut over the hills and surrounding treetops, bathing the Grass Valley Elementary School playground in its warm, golden rays. Two 4th and 5th grade classes make their way to a big room next to the playground, a space with tall ceilings that’s furnished with long, cafeteria folding tables and decorated with posters offering snappy slogans about respect, fairness, trustworthiness, citizenship. The room is aptly named the Multi-Purpose Room: it serves as an indoor gym, a cafeteria, a place for assemblies and performances. This morning it will transform once again, this time into a dance studio, where students and classroom teachers will dance, improvise, co-create, meaning-make and reflect, all with the goal of building empathy and a school culture of inclusion in order to stymie the bullying that has recently cropped up among students.

This kind of dancing happens weekly at Grass Valley Elementary but on Wednesdays there is a catch, a little something different: of the two classes that come together one is a Special Education class for students with disabilities and the other is a General Education class for students who do not have disabilities. My co-teacher and I welcome the students, teachers and paraprofessionals into the space where we make one large circle. We say to the group that we are here to dance altogether, that the purpose of these classes is to dance with people we don’t normally dance with, that later in the class we will ask everyone to partner with someone from a different class. We say that we expect students to be open to dancing with new people, to try their best, to have fun. We begin our warm-up and progress through the class embodying the energy concepts smooth and sharp. The air in the room comes alive as students, many of whom are new to dance, fly through the air with sharp, jagged jumps before they melt to the floor in smooth slides that blaze long, narrow pathways, traversing nearly the entire space. We are in awe of the full-throttle dancing happening before us. We see no differentiation of ability/disability in this moment; all students are fully embodied, engaged in designing their own choreographic reality.

Now it’s the time in the lesson when we ask students to find a partner from a different class. This doesn’t happen quickly or easily. Students are reluctant to leave their friends, their classmates, to pair with someone they don’t know. And, there is stigma: students in the Special Education class know they are second-class citizens in the eyes of their General Education peers. They know it from the names they are called and they know it from the games they’re excluded from. The bold, embodied confidence that existed just a moment ago gives way to stillness and hesitation. We request help from their teachers to encourage and partner students who are hanging back or unsure.

Once in pairs, students face each other and follow movement prompts such as: do sharp aerial movements toward your partner, meet them in the middle and freeze in a sharp shape; do different sharp aerial movements away from your partner; or try gliding smoothly toward your partner, freeze in a smooth shape, do a smooth dance away from your partner. We repeat prompts like this, modifying them with different locomotors, levels, and energy elements, all the while naming aloud the movement choices we see students making and using these to inform our next prompt.

Grass Valley Elementary/photo courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

Students go on to compose dances that examine the toward-and-away relationship of duet-ing with another person. Some students struggle: it’s a lot to creatively engage with someone you don’t know who has abilities different than your own. When we reflect at the end of class, students reveal that the experience was fun, challenging, illuminating. As the classes line up to leave, a 5th grade student comments to his teacher about his experience of working with someone new, “We’ve never danced together before. We could be friends.”

At Luna Dance Institute, we are in the second year of the Dance Inclusion Class pilot project at Grass Valley Elementary. The work has been exhilarating and a challenge. As a teaching artist and choreographer, I observed many moments of creative, choreographic discovery in classes I taught, from Kindergarten all the way through fifth grade. I noted that as a session went on, the iciness between students from different classes began to melt and finding a partner happened more quickly and required less teacher intervention. It was clear that students engaged in more artistic risk-taking in their compositions, including sophisticated movement invention and partnering that we had not investigated in class but was borne of kinesthetic experimentation. Students became more articulate in their reflections of their choreographic process and classroom teachers began to witness their students in new and different ways.


A teacher of 4th and 5th grade students with moderate to severe special needs watched in awe as one of her students incorporated poly-rhythmic articulations of his arms, shoulders and spine while he danced. After class she revealed to me that, although they were already half-way through the school year, nobody knew he could dance like that or that he possessed such innate talent. Another teacher, of second grade students in a General Education class, commented to us after class, “I have really hard behavioral challenges in my class and they [the students] are already successful.” It was the first day of class.

Other positive outcomes of the project include a shift in school culture; at an end-of-year focus group classroom, teachers noted that students from the Special Education and General Education classrooms were interacting more during unstructured times such as recess and lunch. They also reported that within the classroom community, students were partnering and forging friendships with their peers whom they had previously shied away from.

And, still, a pilot project is just that: a testing of the waters, a creative risk in itself to see how organizational and programmatic structures working in concert can effect positive change. There is beauty, and there is the blunt edge of challenge, a call to use the embodied knowledge that comes from being a dance artist in order to assess and reconfigure, in order to find another way.

One of these challenges was the clear discrepancy in student ratios; Grass Valley Elementary has classrooms for students in Special Education for all grades, starting in Kindergarten and going all the way through 5th grade, however, the number of children in each class is significantly lower than the classes of students in General Education. This meant that several classes of students with special needs did two or more sessions of Dance Inclusion Classes. They deepened their dance learning but they also had to accommodate more than their General Education peers. Already carrying the stigma of Special Education, the onus fell on them to be the most open and flexible when it came time to dance with students from another class.

Grass Valley Elementary/photo courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

In addition to this continual shape-shifting, the imbalance in student numbers also affected the curriculum we built. Although we envisioned most of the collaboration as a 1:1 duet relationship, instead, the students often had to form trios. This burst open our box of what we thought it meant to relate spatially, in time, with energy to a single partner and helped us rethink the curriculum in order to design it more creatively. Through this process, we also found that we developed more agency with the classroom teachers we worked with.

Grass Valley Elementary is a unique school – for 7 years they have partnered with Luna Dance Institute to build a school-wide culture of dance with full scope and sequence arts education to as many students as possible and using dance as a means to meet their Social-Emotional Learning (S.E.L) goals. Many of the teachers there are veteran educators and have worked in the Oakland Unified School District for the majority of their careers. They are a united and deeply committed community of teachers working to offer their students every opportunity for extended learning (dance, music, visual art, Maker Space, gardening, library time) while having to meet test score and learning standard benchmarks and working in a district that is, once again, in a severe budget crises, resulting in deep cuts to the schools themselves.

But, challenging times call for relentless creativity. And, so, this marks the second year of our Dance Inclusion Class pilot project. As of this publishing, the project will have been featured at two conferences, written about in a dance education magazine and represented at a panel discussion. We retooled some details in order to create as much time and space as possible for students to discover their own dancing selves while developing empathy for their peers who experience the world in a different way than they do. The initial disequilibrium of relating to something and someone new continues to happen in the first few classes at every grade level, in every session. But, the joy of finding the freedom in one’s own physicality, and sharing that joy with a newly-found collaborator, is beyond limit.


Cover Photo of MagazineDenial, bullying, harassment, along with fears of violence, racism, and many manners of abuse are realities we live with; for a long, too long, much too long time.

Proximity provides a way to witness. Touch serves as one of the most intimate bonds: there’s the nuzzle of parent and child, hands held in camaraderie and comfort, and welcome embraces from friends that bring focus to the delicious pleasure of being acknowledged. Then there is the touch that is not wanted, that can come unexpectedly.

Are we okay?

The gift of our bodies is that they are ours alone to work with, cherish, question, be curious about. At 60 my body continues to surprise me, both in its resilience and also in its desire. I find the relationship to my body changes daily and through perseverance I am discovering that physical challenges—even past abuse—provide an opportunity to reflect on my evolving body. This has led me to meditate on uncertainty: Where will I be in 10 years? What will my body feel like? How will I continue to navigate uncertainty?   

Am I okay?

I am so proud of the stand that people are taking to say No to the many forms of abuse and mistreatment that can be couched under a variety of platforms. And what feels like the ugliest stance of all is when someone says “that’s just how it is.” Saying No is powerful and yet, sadly, saying No is only a first step to stop injustice and inequity.

Are you okay?

Depending on your experience you might think that what I’m writing about is stated too dramatically. Well, I say …. No, No, No! I have too often been told “it will all be okay” when a hand has hit me, when ugly words have been hurled at me, when I’ve been told I should not exist because of my sexual preference. It is not okay. Abuse is not justifiable.

Finding joy and hope amidst strife is a constant in life, and my work with artists provides a forum for reflection and healing. The act of coming together in the studio and in theatrical spaces is powerful and it’s a privileged experience that I am thankful to have in my life. I will always advocate for more mighty voices telling truths that are reflected in bodies that move and move.

The March issue highlights words, dances and ideas that inform the continued navigation of life and art.

Enjoy the intimacy shared, the care provided, the curiosity revealed and the comfort in being in relationship with dance.

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