Dancers Choice Award 2018 – Carla Service

By Heather Desaulniers


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.”

This article appeared in the April 2018 edition of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.