Boundless Enthusiasm

How Arvin Arjona took the Millburn High School dance program from zero to the Orange Bowl in six years

Most of his students call him Mr. Arjona or Mr. A. “But some call me Papa Panda because they saw my Kung Fu Panda screen saver,” says Arvin Cheng Arjona. “Kids will be kids.”

Arjona is Millburn High School’s first dance teacher, and he exudes boundless energy in his love for dance. During the past six years, not only has he managed to help start a dance program at the New Jersey high school, he successfully petitioned for a new dance studio with a sprung floor and took charge of the after-school dance club. His audition-only dance company is gaining notoriety for its talent: The team was asked to perform at the 2014 Orange Bowl.

But these accomplishments are the result of a deeper motivation. “The best thing about teaching is bringing what was taught to me to the next generation so it stays alive,” says Arjona. “That’s my passion.”

First Modern Class at 21

Arjona’s foray into dance started with street dancing, break dancing and martial arts. And then, when he was 21, he saw an advertisement for a modern dance class and signed up, thinking it meant the latest dance steps/trends. He was in for a surprise: “It was ‘Martha Graham? Horton? Isadora who? What?’” Arjona says. “But I loved it. Once Pandora’s box opened, I just wanted to try all sorts of different styles.”

He soon was a regular at Alvin Ailey’s public classes and took dance courses at County College of Morris in New Jersey.

Arjona started his teaching career in special education in 1998. He got the dance teacher bug two years later, after someone asked him to assist with a jazz dance class at a conference. “It was ‘Wow. This is something I want to pursue,’” he says. “I could put together what I love to do—teaching and my love of dance. That’s what sparked it.”

He started teaching dance at Millburn in 2007, and in 2010 he earned his MA in dance education at NYU Steinhardt.

Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones from County College of Morris is still a mentor, as is Dr. Barbara Bashaw, now based at Rutgers University. “Without these educators, I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today,” Arjona says, also crediting the support of his wife Alma Solis-Arjona. “Supportive family is also the key to being a great dance educator, because they are the ones who let you vent to them when you have those rough days.”

Students use Laban to map their movement pathway during a choreography exercise.

Inside the Classroom

Arjona teaches dance as a fine arts elective (college prep/conservatory approach) and as a physical education elective (dance appreciation/basic technique). He educates his students about commercial vs. concert dance forms, and he encourages them to choreograph for the school’s spring and winter dance concerts.

Every year he takes a group to either the Regional or National High School Dance Festival (see below). Not only do the students benefit from the exposure to outside instructors and role models, but it’s an opportunity for Arjona to network with his peers in the dance community.

“I love working with high school students, because no matter what level each student is at, they can be taken to a higher level,” Arjona says. “I like to switch it up on the kids and find new ways to make things challenging. And I’m always looking for new ways to teach.”

Sometimes this means adapting to less than ideal studio space. When he first started teaching at Millburn, Arjona was able to use the school’s auditorium stage but had to clean and prep it before class. Then he was given a classroom with ceramic tile for four years, which meant modifying movements to help protect dancers from injury.

As the program has continued to grow, Arjona was able to convince the school board that the school should have a dedicated dance space with sprung floors. This past January, the new studio opened with two rolling mirrors, although it does have to be shared part of the year with the wrestling team. Next on the list? Portable barres.

So what’s dance class like with Papa Panda?

“Mr. A is exactly the same person in the classroom as he is when he’s not, and he tries really hard to get all of his students interested in dance and all its styles,” says Maria Perna, a former student now in college with hopes of becoming a dance teacher.

Arjona is very specific about what he wants and what he expects the students to be able to do, says Dr. Roger Keller, lead teacher of the arts at Millburn High School. “He accomplishes this by running a tight ship, expecting excellence and not allowing partial commitment,” Keller says. “The character-building that takes place in Arvin’s classes makes strong people, good citizens, kids with self-respect and respect for others. They also know Mr. Arjona has their back when they give fully to the dance program.”

Perna felt comfortable being part of the dance program because “Mr. A and all my friends made us a family. He is so much fun, but he knows when to be serious. He has taught me a lot,” she says, including how to relax her shoulders and some karate moves she has used in her own dancing.

Even though Arjona may be tough on his students, they ultimately respect him for it. “They know he is working to make them better dancers and better and more committed students in general, by building character and focus that transfers from dance to other aspects of their lives,” Keller says.

Senior Bradley Bunn, for example, does not plan on being a professional dancer, but she hopes to continue dancing for as long as possible and to take recreational classes in college. Arjona has encouraged her to be more confident. “As a freshman, I was very quiet and shy, and I was afraid to try things out of my comfort zone,” she says. “Now I am president of the dance club, and I love trying new styles of dance.”

Advocate for Dance Education

In addition to his work at MHS, Arjona teaches at studios in New Jersey and Los Angeles during the summer. And he is on the executive board for the New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, helping dance become part of physical education curricula by holding workshops for PE instructors.

Meanwhile, the MHS dance program continues to grow yearly, mostly through word of mouth. There are now about 250 students in the program. “The students tell others about the work, the awards and the successes,” Keller says. “Arvin stays long after the end of the school day to give fully to the students, to lead by example.”

Arjona says it can be a lonely gig. “There is no one else, just me, and dance is still looked at as not a true subject by some colleagues,” he says. “But you have to be outgoing. If you’re not outgoing about what you teach, the kids are not going to be excited. It’s about evolving and becoming better, and having a better education.” DT

Hannah Maria Hayes has an MA in dance education, American Ballet Theatre pedagogy emphasis, from New York University.

TU Dance
presented January Part II at the 2013
festival.

The High School Dance Festival Experience

Every year, Arvin Cheng Arjona makes a point of bringing his students to either the Regional or National High School Dance Festival (they’re offered in alternating years), where more than 1,000 high school dancers and their teachers gather for a weekend of classes and performance. “I want to show my students what it’s like to dance with the best of the best high school dancers in a pre-professional/college prep environment,” says Arjona. “It also exposes them to the importance of the art of dance and how clean technique with healthy training can bring them to another level.”

The festivals are open only to high schools that have dance programs. Schools must register for the event and submit payment. Costs run about $650 per person to attend, including transportation, says Arjona, who this year took 16 dancers (two boys and 14 girls) along with a female chaperone to the Regional festival at Governor’s School for the Arts in Virginia.

Schools may submit faculty and student choreography prior to the weekend. An adjudication panel makes the final selection for showcase performances. Arjona’s has yet to be accepted, but every year he submits work of his own or a guest artist and that of a student. Colleges have a presence at the festivals—Rutgers, Long Island University, Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, among others, were represented this year—to give students a sample of the collegiate experience. And summer program recruiters also host an informational fair, with opportunities to audition for scholarships or program acceptance.

While fundraisers and dance concerts help pay for the trip, there is always some money that needs to be covered by the students and their families. This year Arjona and the dancers raised nearly $5,000 by holding bake sales, car washes and other projects. Arjona also sells hair ties during classes for five cents each. “After a while, it adds up, because a lot of kids forget,” he says. The school kicked in an additional $1,000 contribution to the dance club, leaving roughly $4,000 to be split among the 16 dancers.

Arjona recommends getting parents on board at the beginning of the school year and getting the necessary forms signed well in advance. “Having a meeting the week of the festival is key,” he says.

The year-round planning process begins as early as August, when Arjona books hotels—those located within walking distance of the festival tend to fill up quickly. Transportation logistics take up a large part of his efforts—and budget. His district covers the cost of buses, but not air travel. Neither method was feasible this year, so he chartered a bus for the six-hour drive to Virginia. In 2014, he will arrange airfare (and transport to and from the airport) for the trip to Miami, where the 2014 National High School Dance Festival will be hosted by New World School of the Arts.

“The worst part is doing the paperwork,” he says, but he adds that the students make it worth the effort. “You see big smiles on their faces, and it’s because they are learning something new. They’re appreciating dance,” he says. “If you’re an organized teacher, everything runs perfectly for the trip.”

A strict chaperone, Arjona requires his students to be back at the hotel every night by 10. He conducts bed checks and monitors the halls throughout the night, though trouble with the students is rare. “They’re tired from taking classes,” he says, with a laugh.

The 2014 National High School Dance Festival is scheduled for April 3–6, 2014. For more information: nhsdf.org or gsarts.org/index.php/dancefestival.

Top three photos by Matthew Murphy, bottom photo by Ingrid Werthmann, courtesy of TU Dance

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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