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

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Courtesy of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

For seven decades, Frank Shawl's bright and kind spirit touched thousands of dancers in the studio and in the audience.

After dancing professionally in New York City and with the May O'Donnell Dance Company, Shawl moved with Victor Anderson to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in 1958. It is the longest running arts organization in Berkeley.

The two ran their own company for 15 years and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center became a home for dance for students and artists alike. It currently runs 120 classes and workshops every week for children and adults, plus artist residencies, rehearsal space and intimate performances. (If you have never visited, the Center is actually a large house converted into four studio spaces.)

Shawl taught modern classes at the studio until 1990, performed into his late 70s and took classes at the Center into his mid 80s.

As I simultaneously mourn and honor Frank—my dear friend, fellow dancer, mentor and boss—I reflect on a few lessons that I learned from him. These five ideas relate to our various roles in dance as students, performers, teachers and administrators.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Getty Images

Halloween is just a few weeks away, which means it's officially time to start prepping your fabulously spooky costumes! Skip the classic witch, unicorn and superhero outfits, and trade them in for some ghosts of dance legends past. Wear your costumes to class, and use them as a way to teach a dance history lesson, or ask your students to dress up as their favorite dancer from history, and perform a few eight counts of their most famous repertoire during class. Your students will absolutely love it, and you'll be able to get in some real educating despite the distraction of the holiday!

Check out some ideas we had for who might be a good fit. We can't wait to see who you all dress up as!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Photo by Sedge Leblang, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At 8, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle at with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox