Creating, Performing & Communicating through Dance: In Oakland, Where Many Families Have Limited Access to the Arts, Students Are Advancing Their Cognitive, Social, Kinesthetic and Artistic Development through Dance Education

Article excerpt

"We become used to murders happening and we remain tranquil in the midst of the sirens, yellow caution tape, blood and candle lights."

"Every tear that falls down is one of my peers saying goodbye ... and every goodbye is a minute taken out of my life."

These words, written by and recorded in the voices of students in the dance production class of East Oakland School of the Arts, became the sound accompaniment to their group choreographic project in 2008.

Four years ago their instructor, a credentialed high school dance teacher, wrote as her goals for student learning: "I want them to understand that they can create dances that have meaning for their lives. That choreography can be more than putting your favorite moves to your favorite music--that it is an opportunity to express yourself in a meaningful way."

Her goals were realized in 2008 student portfolios that included a group choreographic work about the prevalence of shootings in Oakland as well as solo dances corresponding to senior projects on topics such as eugenics, prison recidivism, immigration and dating violence. Students also had opportunities to perform these works at local elementary schools, dance festivals, universities and press conferences.

Using socially relevant subject matter

The work at East Oakland School of the Arts is part of a larger project to build a scope and sequence of dance learning for K-12 students in Oakland, a community that is home to a disproportionate number of families with limited access to arts, education or social resources. As part of this project, EOSA teen dancers performed their choreography at two elementary schools in their neighborhood. The K-5 students, who may attend EOSA in the future, sat enraptured by these "big kid dancers."

Because these elementary students also receive weekly dance classes, they were able to watch and respond to the performance using the language and skills unique to dance. The works performed, dealing with socially relevant yet intense subject matter, were received by the young audience members as something important and accessible.

They asked questions both about the artists' personal experiences and dance choices: "Why did you include this movement in your dance?" (referring to a heartbeat-like movement at the finale) or "When the dancer 'died' in the dance, why did some people run over and other people ignore it?"

Students as role models

One of the most poignant aspects of the audience question-and-answer period was when EOSA performers asked the elementary kids if they'd ever lost anyone to violence, and so many raised their hands. There was valuable learning in this exchange for both elementary and high school students. The young children were able to see dance as something they could continue--and, in fact, develop to the point of performing for others. The teens were able to understand themselves as role models in their communities and experience the full impact of using their art form to communicate. Both groups saw that they were part of the same community and had opportunities they had not considered.

The performance ended with the teens giving the following advice to the young kids: "Stay in school. Find something you really enjoy doing and stick with it. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't achieve your dreams--because you can!" This typifies the power of the arts to educate in a meaningful and authentic way.

OUSD's Dance Infrastructure Project

The Oakland Unified School District has had a long history of arts education. As with any city and school district, arts programming fluctuates over time. However, through budget cuts, state receivership, and the need to focus resources on academic achievement, OUSD has maintained its commitment to arts education.

For the last 15 years, Oakland has been rebuilding its arts programs through various initiatives that include both certificated staffing, community partnerships and professional development in the arts. …