Dance Educators Create Systemic Change

By Cherie Hill

November 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
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Dance teachers create change. Daily we enter classrooms, centers, and studios motivated to share our passion with students who eagerly await the chance to move and liberate their bodies. In turn we witness students’ growth in confidence, skill, expression, and self-awareness. But our job is not easy. While bodies illuminate diverse expressions, the environments we teach in often contradict our labors, especially when we work in communities who suffer from systematic oppression. Our students can fall victim to punitive measures, lack of necessary government funding, and the fear of deportation, human trafficking, or imprisonment. These are unfortunate realities for teachers in the Bay Area and elsewhere.

For eight years I have worked as a dance teaching artist, spending the most recent five as an educator and arts administrator with Luna Dance Institute, a non-profit dance education organization in Berkeley. My duties include: teaching creative and modern dance improvisation to children of all ages in Oakland Unified School District and in Luna’s after-school studio lab composition program; working with moms and children in residential recovery homes and families in local libraries; and infants and preschoolers in early childhood centers. I participate in local city arts and culture meetings, sign petitions to advocate for funding and dance legislation, and maintain relations with government and grant foundations. I continue to do the work, because of a belief that teaching benefits all children, and I remain committed to aligning myself with equitable practices that take in account the oppression of our communities.

In the public schools I work in, children have little or no access to the arts, and teachers overwhelmingly lack the support needed for their students. I have witnessed numerous interactions between teachers and students that feel damaging to the school culture and counteractive to co-constructing a learning environment. Luna’s school classes require classroom teachers to be present during dance classes the entire time, so they see how teaching artists interact with the students, and deliver dance curriculum. They are also encouraged to participate and experience dancing for themselves as they work with artists to create a class that aligns with mutual goals and the best learning experience for their students.

While working with a 5th grade teacher I noticed a tendency for her to want to control students in their use of space and adherence to instructions. She struggled with embracing creative choices, and would often stop class numerous times to give a lecture. A couple of months into the class the teacher confided in me that she felt she was being too hard on the children. She had taught middle school years prior and she realized she was holding her 5th grade students to the same expectations. Watching them dance, which involved some play and student leadership, gave her a more accurate depiction of where they were in their socio-emotional development. Over time this teacher’s harshness decreased and she exhibited more laughter and partnership with her students. I will never forget when she asked her students to wait until after dance to discuss other topics, because she wanted to fully focus and participate in the dance class. I am sure these changes carried over into her interactions with students in the classroom.

As part of Luna’s MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) program teaching artists co-teach in recovery centers where the moms live and participate in programs to rehabilitate and regain custody of their children. When moms reach a certain stage of recovery they can reunify with their child and both live at the center. At one recovery center I co-taught at a mom had a personal love for dance, and when she spoke about her three-year old son she described him as being highly active, sometimes having too much energy. As she learned more about child development and its relation to movement patterns through Luna’s family dance and embodied parent education classes, her descriptions of her child shifted to include her understanding of him learning about his body in space, and becoming more acquainted with his weight. I saw this mom participate in classes throughout the session with less frustration especially when her son would run into something or surprisingly jump onto her back. There developed a mutual and beneficial understanding between them.

During the second year of teaching at the recovery center I and the co-teacher witnessed the same mom’s attitude about her son and his high energy stray. She was getting into trouble from the center’s staff and receiving flak from other residents about her son’s behavior. She was worried and anxious that he may act out in dance class. She did not want to be punished by her peers or the staff, so she would take him out of class. He would bang on the door crying to be let back in. We saw this situation as opportunities to help everyone at the center increase their knowledge of children, dance, and development. The entire staff at the center attended a professional development workshop we held, and we plan to include staff training as a regular part of the project to support news ways of seeing children’s actions and behavior.

In all of Luna’s programs, Schools and Community Alliances, MPACT, Studio Lab, and Professional Learning we hold examples of how teaching dance affects the larger system. In late September we taught a professional learning workshop for persons working in shelters, schools, and community centers. At the end of the class a special education teacher shared that she is going to add dance, music, and art to her students IDP (individual development plan) making it a responsibility of the district to provide art for her students.

In addition to teaching dance that is developmentally appropriate and providing examples for the partners within the institutions we work in, expanding our knowledge of race and equity and connecting it to practice, continues to be extremely important for Luna’s work in communities deeply affected by systematic oppression. As part of my role as Luna’s Chief of Staff and human resources manager, I introduce a multicultural communication tool that provides a guideline for multicultural interaction each month for faculty to focus on. I often hear from our teaching artists that their thoughts involving certain situations or incidents shift when they apply this multicultural perspective. Listen deeply, check out assumptions, and acknowledge that intent is different than impact are a few of the tools we practice.

Two years ago Luna contracted Tammy Johnson, a race and equity consultant, as well as a dancer, to lead us in faculty and leadership training on equitable practices. With her help the faculty has experienced organizational cultural shifts that have allowed more space to have difficult conversations. I also see greater confidence within staff to speak directly about race and its effects on our and our clients’ daily experiences. Internally we continue to have discussions on topics such as racism, privilege, bias, and cultural humility. By discussing these imperative subjects with each other, we are able to connect them to how we promote our programs, who we promote to, as well as how we understand and address the needs of partners.

Last year Luna held our dance and equity panel opening up conversations about equity and how it affects dance. In November Luna faculty will present our findings on equity work at the National Dance Education Organization Conference; we are hosting a site-visit and dance and equity panel for the National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference, and holding a free community forum on dance and equity at our studio in February 2018. Along with our deeper knowledge of the history and impacts of systematic oppression, our empathy for our clients and each other continues to grow and develop.

I love the work I do and truly believe that we as dance educators are making a difference. We have to negotiate a lot when we step into communities, especially those in the margins, but if we continue to dedicate ourselves to being agents of change working to combat oppression, our work will ripple into helping create a more humane and equitable system.

Cherie Hill is a dance teaching artist with Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MFA in Dance Choreography and Performance from the University of Colorado, Boulder and graduate certificates in Somatics and Women and Gender Studies.