Luna Dance’s teachers are building a movement to nurture creativity in schools

Dance instructor Heather Stockton leads kindergartners at Grass Valley Elementary in Oakland. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

The portable trailer shakes on a Monday afternoon as two dozen tiny bodies spin, bounce and slither.

“Dancers, 1-2-3, eyes on me!” announces Heather Stockton, in a brightly flowered jumpsuit, pom-pom earrings and pink tennis shoes. Stockton often sings instructions in a sweet soprano that the children say sounds like a princess.

“Do you see Diego showing us his middle-level dance?” A boy folds his arms in front of his chest and goes wild with his legs. “Use your words. What could we call this dance?” Stockton asks, and the kids all shout back, “It’s kicking!”

In a moment, music comes on, and a girl in a Barbie T-shirt spins on her bottom to show a “low-level dance.” All around her, the kindergartners and first-graders in Stockton’s class crawl and balance on their hands.

Dance instructor Heather Stockton gets down low with Micah Kidd and Deja Hightower as she teaches a classroom of kindergartners at Grass Valley Elementary in Oakland. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

The day is not always so carefree here at Oakland’s Grass Valley Elementary, where a child’s hand-painted sign in a classroom window reads “Save Our School.” Oakland Unified has announced it will close this campus next year due to under-enrollment. But in Stockton’s dance class, the children are connected and breathing deep, twirling with a teacher every student sees weekly, a teacher who has been here seven years and says, “I can’t imagine a better job.”

Stockton’s Grass Valley class is possible thanks to Berkeley’s Luna Dance Institute, where she is a teaching artist. In many ways, what Luna Dance does is as simple as Stockton’s class.

As founder Patricia Reedy says of Luna’s beginnings 30 years ago, “Not every kid’s going to be a writer, but every kid learns to write a five-paragraph essay. So we wondered: What would happen if every kid learned to make a dance?”

Beyond this, Luna’s work is a bit complicated. The institute offers early childhood dance classes, a Teen Choreo Lab and summer dance camps — all on pause until 2023 — but its largest programs teach dance teachers to nurture creativity. Luna acts as a consultant to San Francisco Ballet’s Dance in the Schools program, and mentors public school dance teachers across the country through its free Summer Dance Institute.

NiyaChristine Senegal (right) dances as Luna dance instructor Heather Stockton teaches a class of kindergartners at Grass Valley Elementary in Oakland. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Luna advocates for policy improvements in dance education, like California’s recent re-establishment of a single-subject teaching credential in dance. It also helps families reconnect through its free MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) classes for parents and children in the process of court-supervised reunification. All this behind-the-scenes work has made Luna a bit obscure to the general public.

“We’re often told we’re the Bay Area arts’ best-kept secret,” said Nancy Ng, Luna’s executive director of creativity and policy.

But now the institute is about to gain a permanent presence. In March, Luna bought a colorful three-story, 10,000-square-foot building at 931 Ashby Ave. in southwest Berkeley. It recently launched a $2.5 million capital campaign for renovations to make the site ADA accessible, and has already raised half that goal. The new building will contain two studios for classes and workshops, a parents’ room and library, and meeting rooms for developing programs that reach throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

The new headquarters ends a long history of displacement. Luna began in 1992, three years after Oakland’s CitiCentre Dance, where Reedy taught and choreographed, was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake. After spotting an old Masonic Hall for rent, Reedy asked her students if she should open a studio there; several handed her checks for $1,000 or more of support almost on the spot.

Soon Reedy asked Ng, a fellow student in the MFA dance program at Oakland’s Mills College, to join her. The pair shared a background in childhood development, and have now worked together for 29 years, enduring nine more Luna Dance relocations.

Patricia Reedy (left) and Nancy Ng at the Luna Dance Institute. Photo: Create

“It’s a relief after all the constant cycle of packing and unpacking,” Reedy said. “Now we’re focusing on what we do well that nobody else does.”

Identifying those core strengths has been a process. When the pandemic hit, Luna lost nearly half of its eight-member staff, and “we knew no one would blame us if we just closed up shop,” Reedy said. Fortunately, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation identified Luna as one of 34 organizations deemed vital to the Bay Area arts and gave the institute a $520,000 grant to work out an adaptation plan. It used an initial chunk of the money to hold listening circles with parents, stakeholders and outside dance professionals who didn’t know Luna well, hoping to learn how it was perceived in the art world and which among its many programs were most valuable.

“What we learned is we’re big thinkers, and we’re good at connecting the dots between creativity, equity and community building,” Reedy said.

The planning funded by the Hewlett Foundation has spurred Luna to bring a new leader onto its staff: director-at-large John-Mario Arcilla Sevilla, who grew up dancing with his family in Hawaii before joining major troupes in New York City.

The principals’ shared commitment to equity and cultural inclusion runs deep. Reedy was raised in Detroit by a single father who was deeply involved in the labor movement and Catholic progressivism. Ng faced blatant racism as a teenager in Los Angeles, recalling one incident as an usher at the Hollywood Bowl when a patron hurled a racial slur. She found strength, she said, in the example of her parochial school teachers, the nuns of the Immaculate Heart Sisters, who were cut off from the church for their feminist, anti-war agitating.

To Ng, the key experience that Luna’s teaching methods bring to children comes down to one word: “belonging.”

Deja Hightower (left), Ariana Navarro and Doris Perkins spin around as dance instructor Heather Stockton teaches a classroom of kindergartners at Grass Valley Elementary in Oakland. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

This was evident at a September video meeting of Luna’s current Summer Dance Institute cohort, as 10 dance teachers working in public schools across the country shared challenges and breakthroughs, then paired up in a dance exercise. The teachers mirrored each other’s use of body parts, space, energy, rhythm and levels.

During the session’s round of check-ins, gratitude flowed to Reedy and Ng for not just the pedagogy tips, but the sheer moral support.

“Here in Chicago, I’m meeting with new school partners and integrating what I’ve learned from Luna in a curriculum revamp,” said participating teacher Gigi Tonye. “It’s not easy, but it’s all to help humans have a better life.”

That goal was clearly foremost at Grass Valley Elementary, where the music in Stockton’s class ranged from big band jazz and surf music to funk, and the teacher used her “princess voice” to line up the kids for a final romp across the floor and out the door.

Dance instructor Heather Stockton often sings in soprano to lead children in class. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

One boy in a Spider-Man shirt strutted with a James Brown-reminiscent rhythm; a girl who had been shy most of the class burst out into a head-high prance.

“Go Niya! Go Angelina! Go Ariana! I see you!” Stockton called out.

And the kids kept on dancing all the way down the trailer’s clattering metal ramp.

Luna Dance Institute Pop-Up Family Dance Class: 10-10:50 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 8. Free, RSVP required. San Pablo Park, on the field side of the basketball court, Berkeley. bit.ly/lunadanceinthepark

Luna Dance by the Numbers

Years since founding: 30.

Children reached every year: More than 50,000.

Children Luna hopes to reach by 2032: More than 500,000.

Teaching artists supported: More than 800.

Summer Dance Institutes hosted: 21.

Number of Summer Dance Institute participants: 12 — six dance teaching artists and six classroom teachers or non-dance teaching specialists, including mental health workers, speech therapists and physical education teachers..

Percentage of Summer Dance Institute past participant survey respondents still teaching dance: 83%.

Year Luna founded MPACT for reunifying families and children: 2000.

Number of parents and children served by MPACT: 5,000.

Counties where Luna has helped establish similar free family dance programs: Orange County and Los Angeles County.

Number of schools in the Oakland Unified School District where Luna has built comprehensive dance programs: Three — New Highland Academy, Tilden Elementary and Grass Valley Elementary.

Amount of money being raised to buy and renovate Luna’s permanent building: $2.5 million.

Money raised so far: $1.25 million.

Number of Luna Donors, 2021-22: 213, including the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council and Alameda County Arts Commission.



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