A SOTA Love Letter: Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts

By Mina Rios

Group of high school dancers seated and stretching on stage

Photo by Brittany Ceres

We immersed ourselves in our art. The San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA) dance program director, Elvia Marta was our maestro, our inspiration, our modern/jazz dance goddess from Panama. In 1986, she taught a warm-up the entire class adored, I was one of those dancers. The slow fluid movement set to Moments in Love by the Art of Noise was transcending. Deeply in the moment with every dancer in unison, we’d forget how tired we were from getting up before sunrise. We were teens intoxicated by the music, the movement, and the moment. This was our SOTA experience so many years ago.

Marta stood at the helm of the SOTA dance program from the time the school opened in 1982, until she retired from the program in 2016.

The late sculptor and arts education advocate Ruth Asawa was resolute in bringing a public high school of the arts to San Francisco and she did. The school she envisioned would enable young talent to train amidst San Francisco’s celebrated arts institutions – the symphony, opera, and ballet in Civic Center. Plans to build a new arts school in Civic Center would take years. For this reason, an alternate location was devised, a temporary location, until the Civic Center vision could be realized. In 1982, San Francisco’s public High School of the Arts opened at the J. Eugene McAteer campus atop Diamond Heights, where it resides today. While SOTA’s destined Civic Center home remains foreseen, plans are encouraging yet vague, and as complicated as ever. Fortunately, the Civic Center location at 135 Van Ness has been set, plans have been drawn up, and funds have been secured.

As a celebrated local artist with public works commissioned by the city, Asawa had influence. Using her influence, Asawa was instrumental in SOTA’s founding; hence the reason the school was renamed after the artist. In 2010, twenty-eight years after SOTA’s founding, the school was deemed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in Asawa’s honor. Sadly, only three years later, Asawa passed away in August 2013. She was 87. 

SOTA students, during the school’s first decade, had a very different social and academic experience from SOTA students today. The School of the Arts and McAteer High School were two very different institutions. They operated as a school within another school, combining arts students with non-arts-students in all academic classes. Looking back, the amalgam of SOTA and McAteer students in a single classroom was a smorgasbord of sorts, with problematic consequences. Bullying was a concern. Certainly, there were instances when non-arts-students found inspiration in the arts through one of their artistic peers, making the transition to SOTA; but this was the exception to the norm.

Former SOTA dance student Rebekah Stoltz Weeman of Napa (class of ’88; but graduated elsewhere) became a freelance travel, food and wine writer. She shares, I have mixed feelings about being integrated with regular McAteer students. At times, I felt like I was living in two separate worlds. The SOTA world was my safe place. The McAteer world was more like real life, both dangerous and exciting. I think the integration was a good way to prepare for real life scenarios in work or social arenas.”

As serious about the arts as some students may be while attending an arts school, it’s not uncommon for students to explore careers outside of their artistic concentration. Studies have shown that a majority of former arts students go on to attend college.

Stoltz Weeman adds, “Although I didn’t continue on with dance, the skills I garnered in the program led me to pursue a degree in Cultural Anthropology and live in Istanbul, Turkey for 11 years.  There, I worked in development, logistics and acute crisis work. My lessons in the dance program at SOTA helped me understand how music, dance and food bring communities together in all stages of life.”

Los Angeles based visual artist, Nicole Vann, a former SOTA dance student (class of ’88, but graduated elsewhere), also trained with the San Francisco School of Ballet, and earned a scholarship to the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City until injuries ended her dance career pursuit. She shares, “Today I am a stylist and figurative artist. I owned a salon and gallery and continue to pursue a career now in visual art after sustaining multiple injuries in dance… I studied visual art at home with my mother growing up and photography at SOTA while attending the dance and music program.”

Laura Dudnick, Public Relations Manager with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) explains what the current curriculum entails, “Ruth Asawa School of the Arts offers both a full academic program and arts programming. Students attend academic classes daily to meet the graduation requirements set forth by the Board of Education and State of California. In addition, each afternoon students attend classes in selected arts disciplines.”

Since the early years of SOTA, when Sam Rockwell, Margaret Cho, and Aisha Tyler were theater students, the SOTA arts programs have evolved immensely. Current arts programs now include specializations in creative writing, film and videography, and architecture and design. Preprofessional training is also offered with partner organizations Alonzo King LINES Ballet and ODC. The dance department is the only department offering instruction off the SOTA campus. Dance students are taken downtown by bus during lunch and are dismissed afterward.

Current dance students also have the option of studying World Dance, which explores music, dance, and traditions from a variety of cultures including West African, Bhangra, Bollywood, Afro-Brazilian, Polynesian and others.

World Dance Director, Joti Singh makes the distinction, “World Dance is a completely separate program from Dance. Students audition specifically for the World Dance program; we are part of the World Music + Dance department.”

The program was introduced as a World Music elective in 2008, then transitioned into its own department of World Music and Dance in 2012; the only program of its kind in the national school system. Guest teachers for the World Dance program are chosen by Singh. She says, “As a professional dancer with my own company (Duniya Dance and Drum Company), I use my connections in the community and also often ask other artists for recommendations.”

Auditions are for 9th grade applicants only – given SOTA is at capacity with over 810 enrolled students. One audition is held each year in February.

Stoltz Weeman says, the SOTA audition is a vivid memory. “I will never forget that day. I was 14 years old and my parents were divorced. There were so many dancers from all over the city. Many of them were very well trained and coming in at advanced levels. I was a bit intimidated by the others who seemed to have more talent. Despite that, the instructors, Elvia and Yvonne, were very supportive and encouraging.”

The popular 1980 feature film Fame stayed fresh in people’s mind after SOTA opened its doors and helped keep SOTA in the local news during that first decade. When word spread about Debbie Allen’s guest appearance at SOTA in the mid 80s, local news was on the story. The talent of dance protégé Robert Henry Johnson was another local news magnet. Today, Johnson is a highly regarded local playwright. In yesteryear, the 18-year old Johnson already had commanding presence. Observing him in action, with his inherent ability to choreograph beautiful, original movement in an instant, as if taking dictation, was a beautiful thing to observe. Taking part in his Carmina Burana piece was a major highlight for this SOTA alum (yours truly, class of ‘88).

The years we spend at SOTA as students go by fast, but the memories last a lifetime and feed our soul with rewarding pride and gratitude. Sharing how both SOTA and the dance art form has shaped her life, Vann says, “Dance had and always will inspire the rest of my life. It is what drives my esthetic and imagery in my painting and sculpture. There is always a physicality to my work.”

While you’re experiencing the SOTA program, you realize you’re part of something very special and profound. Stoltz Weeman says, Programs like SOTA give youth the opportunity to create an identity outside of everything else they may be facing.” And adds, “The SOTA program provided me with structure and a means of expression that changed my life for the better.”

Dudnick, with the SFUSD shares what plans are in place for SOTA and the SFUSD at large. She says, “In the fall of 2013, the superintendent of SFUSD, under the leadership of the Board of Education, launched an ambitious undertaking (Vision 2025): to develop a new vision for the future of public education in San Francisco, and then use that vision as a guide to transform the city’s school system, over the next decade, into one of the premier systems in the world.”

What started as a very specific vision for SOTA alone, has grown into something much larger in scale, a vision to completely transform the SFUSD system; essentially, an expanded version of Ruth Asawa’s vision for SOTA.

Dudnick adds, “The 135 Van Ness parcel will house two complementary programs, Mosaic Center and the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. The district has $120 million ready to begin the project and is seeking an additional $120 million in private funds. The project has strong support from current and past mayors as well as all the major arts institutions in the city.”

An ambitious endeavor indeed. Yet 38 years have passed since SOTA opened. With the 40 year milestone since the institution was founded fast approaching, Ruth Asawa’s SOTA vision shall not be forgotten. Let the renovation and retrofitting of SOTA’s long-awaited home at 135 Van Ness begin. The future of Asawa SOTA is now.

This article was written for the April 2020 issue of In Dance.

Originally from San Francisco, Mina Rios is a freelance journalist and voice for the global arts community through stimulating, under-reported journalism. Driven by her background in music, dance, drama, and a passion for the arts, Rios writes for a variety of California based publications including: In Dance, Sonoma Magazine, North Bay Bohemian, Pacific Sun, and The San Diego Reader. Rios also offers writing services in ad copy, press releases, business proposals, and grant acquisitions through her consulting business Mina Communications.