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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