About halfway to this 20th landmark of Luna Dance Institute, I was asked to speak on a panel about careers in dance. During the Q&A, my mentor and teacher, June Watanabe, stumbled over a question about my impulse to take on such an endeavor; she was searching for a polite way to ask me about my “chutzpah.” I think I answered with a flip, “It needed to be done and I really have nothing to lose.” Today, as I reflect on the two decades of crafting this small-yet-complex organization, I find there remains truth in that answer.
I often say that Luna was founded on a whim, and, to some extent that is true. A confluence of events: the Loma Prieta earthquake and subsequent closing of Citicenter Dance Theatre, dissatisfaction with the lack of graduate level dance education programs available, and an incessant itch to make dances and connect dance-making in more meaningful ways prepared me to notice a “For Lease” sign on Park Blvd in late 1991. Several students wrote donation and loan checks and, believing a bit in magic, I saw their confidence as a sign that I could do this. Luna’s start-up capital, as it were, included these few donations, a personal credit card, tons of sweat equity, perseverance and the belief that no matter what happened, I would be okay.
Luna’s first Open House, held on International Women’s Day 1992, brought together diverse activists and artists and foreshadowed Luna’s current community programs. Malonga Casquelourd, Hafeesah Dalji, Danny Giray and Leslie Carter brought their programs from Citicenter to Luna. Then emerging, now veteran, choreographers like Claudine Naganuma, Sue Li-Jue, Megan Nicely, Nancy Ng and me tested our creations at bi-annual showcase performances. Many dance artists took classes and rehearsed in our beautiful 2,000-square-foot space. Over the years, I enjoyed watching my colleagues take flight: Vivian Sam to Broadway, Claudine to danceNaganuma and to launch her own program at Dance Space, Colette Bischer-Choate to her MFCC license, Jill Harris opening Informed Body Pilates Studio, Chantal Sampogna–a judge(!) and Therese Watkins McMillan working for change in D.C. Some discovered dance, others moved on to explore other aspects of their lives. And the children! Many of us had them. Some of the young dancers of Luna’s first decade are now bringing their children to us. Community. It is a beautiful thing.
In the course of twenty years, many things change. This is a good thing. Yet, when I reflect on what has allowed Luna to grow, to make an impact and to provide a stable source of employment for dance artists, I recognize that tenacity plays an equal role to innovation. In our various partnerships and alliances in education, mental health, arts education, dance and social change agencies, I’ve witnessed programs being designed, implemented and funded along the latest trend lines. While many of these are well-intended (Habits of Mind, Teaching For Understanding, Backward Design, 21st Century Skills, authentic assessment, arts integration, child-centered performance, partnership(s) in multitudes of forms, etc.), rarely are sufficient time or financial resources allocated for success. At Luna, we tend to stay true to what we know. Sometimes that makes us appear arrogant, sometimes naive. Sometimes we’re ahead of the curve, sometimes we’re continuing to evolve the “less sexy” tried and true. What propels Luna’s program design are the beliefs that research has already shown what is good for children, citizens just do not have the political will to make it happen; that supporting those in society who are undervalued elevates all of us; and that rigorous self-reflection can guide us to the right next step.
I’ve written about Luna’s pedagogical approach and our various programs several times each year in this and other periodicals. While I’m always happy to talk about them (and you can email me anytime firstname.lastname@example.org), what I’m most committed to at this juncture is less programmatic and more about questioning the status quo of how my field–dance education–is practiced. Presently, I have more career years behind me than I do in front of me. While I no longer believe that I will live to see the day when every child has dance, nor every adult values play, I still have ambition. Before I retire, I want it to be possible for a young person to make a living as a dance teacher without requiring a spouse-with-a-real-job. I want dance teachers to be proud of their work and stay in the field long enough to become leaders and pass on what they know. I want dance teachers to have more confidence in their understanding of their craft so that they are actually preparing children to be better choreographers than those currently alive–that is what teaching is all about, preparing children for a world we cannot imagine and optimistically assuming they will do better than us.
Twenty years later, I find myself embracing my chutzpah in two other ways. One of the projects I am most excited about is Luna’s initiative to “Build Cultures of Dance.” BCoD projects begin with a dance teaching artist who has studied with us and demonstrates an entrepreneurial or leadership spark. We then devise a plan to help them design, implement and develop the skills needed to manifest new dance programs in their community. As an example, the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation has supported our efforts to work with ten dance professionals in Southern California to start a professional learning community, initiate family dance programs in impoverished communities and develop leadership skills to support the hundreds of diverse dance teachers working in the lower half of our state. Professional development, advanced workshops, leadership training, coaching and fundraising workshops are part of each BCoD effort, yet the majority of the work is simply to encourage these professionals to follow their instincts, to be fearless, to “just do it.”
The second area is to challenge my peers to question the structural norms that have been cobbled together in our field. I want to encourage all of us to draw upon our individual and collective chutzpah to speak up and take our power when we have the opportunity to do so; when we have our “butts in the chair.” I believe that dance education leaders, like me, love dancers and dance teachers; yet, we perpetuate a system that prides itself on administering arts education programs in schools serving poor communities while our teachers remain itinerant, independent contractors with no benefits, no job security, inadequate training and virtually no professional expectations beyond enthusiastic personality and good behavior management skills. Why aren’t we questioning the arts education initiatives that continue to throw what little money is available into re-inventing their own versions of the same wheel: blueprints, master plans, strategic processes that result in binders full of ideas but very little dance delivery in the classroom? I believe that we, as artists, can access our creative, idealistic, collaborative selves and actually create new paradigms. To do so, however, means being fearless in recognizing the inequities between practitioner and administrator, fearless in naming our own complicity without hiding behind righteousness merely for being in the field, and fearless in claiming the expertise that belongs to us. I’m lucky that I get to work at a place where unrelenting critical self-reflection is expected. The honesty generated inspires us to action and we get to feel hope because there is power in truth and power in the knowledge that there isn’t really anything to lose. If we dancers and dance educators don’t make our field right for us, who will?
SRI International, Center for Educational Policy (2009), An Unfinished Canvas: District Capacity and the Use of New State Funds for Arts Education in California (study commissioned by William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, Menlo Park, CA)