At the new Luna Dance Institute offices in Emeryville, a Bay Area organization has finally found a space to match its mission. Standing in a loose cluster of cubicles, I can see through a clear glass partition into a small dance studio. Behind me, Luna's staff are developing curriculum and writing grant proposals. In front of me, a group of children are taking a dance class, wriggling and leaping across the space to the beat of a small drum.
This physical proximity between Luna's staff and the classes they offer is one manifestation of their unerring focus on the experience of each individual child they serve. From the time I first encountered Luna, as one of their first students in the early '90s, they have remained devoted to an engaged model of arts education, in which dance teachers step directly out of the studio into their offices and all curriculum and organizational policy is informed by direct experience in the classroom.
Editing a press release next door to a room full of laughing, shrieking children is never easy, and the dance class in Luna's studio is by no means unobtrusive. There are no little girls in pink tutus lined up along a mirror, quietly executing identical steps. Instead, children are scattered across the floor, deeply immersed in their own personal dances. One kid stands in the center of the room, turning and twisting in on himself, while another bounds through an obstacle course of her classmates. Their teacher calls out for them to explore a new shape or to make themselves as big or small as they can and keeps them focused with the regular beat of her drum.
In the Luna curriculum, this corresponds to the first phase of a class, called exploration, in which students are encouraged to take a concept like 'symmetry' or 'relationship' and find as many ways as possible to express it in movement. In the next phase, improvisation, the teacher offers certain limits to help the students define the movements or concepts they want to explore in more depth -- instructing them, for example, to find a beginning, middle, and end within their sequence of movements. Finally, having each created a short original composition, the students perform for their classmates, who offer responses and feedback to the dancer.
Instead of training children in a specific technique, Luna teaches their students to create their own style of dance. Founder and Director of Teaching & Learning Patricia Reedy explains, "...the idea is that we give children and adults an opportunity to learn things for themselves, in their own way, recognize how they learn them and what they love, and to pursue it." She shares the words of a fifth-grade student from an underprivileged school in Oakland who wrote in her evaluation of a dance class, "I feel so free."
Freedom -- from stylistic categories like ballet or jazz dance, from the drive to compete, from the judgments of a society that is only beginning to value dance education -- is at Luna's core. In the early '90s, Reedy was a dance student dissatisfied with the choreography she was being taught. She describes her moment of realization: "I was a really good dance student, I could learn anyone's choreography like that... but I was seeing increasingly that the leaders and the choreographers and the people that were making it were not necessarily women. And I really had a lot of questions about, 'What does it mean to be in a class where all these women are being led by a man's vision about who women are?'"
Out of these questions came Luna Kids Dance, a place where children could study choreography alongside their dance training instead of learning to copy what others created. From the start, Luna has challenged the idea that any young artist should be led by another's vision of their body or their capacity to create. Reedy collaborated with Nancy Ng, now Director of Community Development at Luna, to build a curriculum based on the national dance standards and on their own commitment to creating the best possible environment for children to learn to dance.
It soon became clear, though, that Luna's model of arts education does not just turn out good dancers. Their students go on to excel in multiple dance styles, other artistic disciplines, and even careers with no relation to dance, but they carry with them the coherence of mind and body and the confidence in their own creativity that Luna fosters. After a few years, Luna expanded its scope and began training not only dance teaching artists but also classroom teachers. Their dream is to bring self-awareness and self-confidence to all children by spreading dance through schools, early childhood centers, and arts and social service agencies across the Bay Area.
Luna's professional learning, studio, and school programs have recently integrated, giving birth to Luna Dance Institute. In the wake of their reorganization and their move to new offices in Emeryville, both Reedy and Ng are optimistic about Luna's future and the future of dance and choreography. As cognitive theory and brain imaging confirm the value of their focus on play and creativity in children's development, they hope that both dance and the freeing mind-body awareness it brings will finally find a place at the heart of education. Says Ng, "I think it is the time for dance."
For more information visit lunadanceinstitute.org.