Dance Teachers Trending

Luna Dance Institute's Transformative Approach to Teaching Dance

Luna Dance Institute's co-directors Patricia Reedy (left) and Nancy Ng. Photos by Kathryn Rummel

In a sunny studio in Berkeley, California, just a stone's throw from San Francisco Bay, the dancers in Nancy Ng's modern-improvisation class are carving the air with their arms and legs, rolling and slithering across the floor and leveraging their torsos into off-kilter balances. Their choreography is inventive, nuanced, even sophisticated—yet these artists are just 7 to 10 years old. They are students at Luna Dance Institute, where co-directors Ng and Patricia Reedy hope to effect a sea change in the way children learn modern dance.

“I ask them to be intentional," Ng says after class. “The only thing that was set was their beginning place and their end place; how they were going to do anything in between was up to them." If her approach seems unusually democratic, that's entirely the point.


“We're about children finding their own way as artists," says Reedy, 59, who founded Luna in 1992. Ng, 54, joined soon after as a part-time teacher, and the women formalized their nonprofit partnership in 1998. From the start, they've emphasized creative decision-making, so Luna kids, from infancy through 17, learn—and apply—principles of movement rather than specifics of technique.


Nancy Ng (in front) is Luna's director of community engagement.

“What we really teach," Reedy explains, eyes sparkling with pride, “is how to choreograph." Through studio classes, public-school programs and parent-child workshops, 25,000 children experience their brand of dance each year.

"I want children to have their own voice and not just replicate me." — Patricia Reedy, founder.

The Philosophy

There is no hint of a syllabus like Cecchetti or Graham in Ng's class. Reedy and Ng are passionate advocates for adapting dance training to children's developmental needs, and they base their approach on theories of cognitive growth as well as elements of Laban Movement Analysis and Margaret H'Doubler methods. “Children learn through movement, they learn through love and they learn through play," Reedy says. “So in our dance programs, we start out with freedom."

Luna teachers guide their classes through a series of age-adapted structures that lead to creating a new dance in every class session: warm-up, followed by exploration of an LMA concept—space, body, effort and shape—improvisation on that theme, then composing and showing original movement, and reflective feedback. In Ng's class, for instance, she asks her children to play with qualities such as bursting, spiking and shaking, high or low, fast or slow. She then challenges them to combine their favorite movements into a structured but self-choreographed sequence.

By learning dance through artistic decision-making, Reedy says, “they get this openness of ways to express themselves." Ng nods in wholehearted agreement as Reedy adds, “I want them to have their own voice and not just replicate me."

The 7- to 10-year-old in Ng's modern-improve class create surprisingly sophisticated and nuanced work.

Making a Difference

Their philosophy evolved after a few years of running Luna as a more traditional studio with adults in modern-dance classes and studio space, where they worked on their own choreography. “I started really looking at, 'How can we help the world?'" Reedy says. “I could make 500 dances before I die, but then only the people who came to see them would maybe be impacted. But what if every kid got to learn how to make a dance?"

A former professional dancer and member of the UC Berkeley dance faculty, Reedy earned her master's in education and creativity from Mills College. (She is currently working toward a PhD in education at the University of San Francisco.)

The women met while at Mills, where Ng earned an MFA in dance after four years of classroom teaching; she went on to be a co-director of San Francisco's Asian American Dance Performances and perform with Anne Bluethenthal & Dancers, a San Francisco contemporary company that emphasizes women, diversity and LGBTQ themes.

Early on, the co-directors came to believe that body awareness and creative thinking are just as important as the technique embraced by conventional teachers, and perhaps even more foundational.

“Our students walk into a technique class of kids their own age and are way above them, because they know their own bodies so well," says Reedy. “They just haven't learned how to follow along. When they're ready to follow along, they get it so much easier because they have a sensibility around flow and weight and rhythm."

To critics who argue that Luna is “anti-technique," she responds, “I actually call that technique, but I know that's not the vernacular of the field. The field calls technique 'ballet' or 'jazz.'"

The Luna Institute fosters an active community of teachers.

Who Gets to Dance?

Their most prized goal of all is bringing dance education to public schools, especially those serving poor neighborhoods and children of color. “If you do want to pursue a career as a dance teacher or performing artist or choreographer, who gets to do that?" Ng asks, then answers herself. “It's not a low-income child of color in a public school system."

The topic sparks both of them, and Reedy jumps in. “That was a founding principle of Luna," she says. “There's so much unexamined privilege and bias. Who gets to dance?"

They developed the Luna curriculum to purposefully align with National Core Arts Standards, and launched a pilot school program in 2003. Last year they achieved their first major success, when New Highland Academy, an underserved elementary school in Oakland, CA, graduated its first class of kids who received dance education in every year of attendance. “That is the dream realized," Reedy says, a smile breaking across her face. “It took a lot of money, a lot of frustration, a lot of time. But it worked."

Teacher Training

Classroom teachers, dance teachers and social-service providers nationwide have responded to Luna's message and methods, and more than 300 attend Luna's workshops, weeklong Summer Institute and California Teaching Credential certification program annually. Many, however, arrive skeptical of Luna's unconventional approach. “They say, 'What about technique?' They come in expecting to argue their way through the whole weeklong class," Reedy says.

North Atlanta High School dance director Tamara Irving, 40, was one of those doubters. An alumna of the former arts-magnet school, where she trained in ballet, modern and jazz, Irving toured with The Lion King for six years. In spite of her enthusiasm and real-world experience, she struggled to engage students. “I was technique-focused," she explains. “I didn't let them express themselves enough, because I didn't know how to. I needed to shift my curriculum to appeal to all students." After attending the Summer Institute and getting a year of mentorship with Reedy, she was named teacher of the year in her school district.

Reedy advocates for learning dance through artistic decision-making.

Positive relationships between teachers and children are key to Luna's approach, and it's obvious that Ng, Reedy and the staff delight in spending time with the children. Ultimately, whether their students become choreographers is of secondary importance to Reedy and Ng. Luna's mission is fulfilled when children become more self-accepting, more creative and more empowered through dance. “If that's the only outcome," Reedy says, “that has an amazing ripple effect in the rest of their lives."

Show Comments ()

As a dance teacher, chances are you strive daily to be a great role model for your students—cheerful, enthusiastic and motivating, offering plenty of positive reinforcement as well as a sense of clear control over your classroom. But what happens when your personal life gets in the way of those good intentions?

Keep reading... Show less

Schedules, routines, parents, music and so much more—there's plenty on your plate already. Why mess with the headache of collecting orders and cash if you don't have to? MoveU can take that off of your hands entirely with their Online Stores. Create beautiful one-of-a-kind designs with their designers and watch your store come to life! How much does the set-up cost? Nothing! In fact, you earn 10% back on all orders your dancers make in that store.

How do you start? MoveU has three handy steps to help you begin!

Keep reading... Show less
Name calling, physical intimidation and cyberbullying are all-too-common experiences among male dancers. Photo by Goh Rhy Yan/Unsplash

Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.

"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "

A different classmate, who often called Russo "Dancing Queen," would lurk near the cafeteria doors each day at lunchtime, hoping for an opportunity to corner him. "I'd find ways to exit the cafeteria at the same time as a teacher, or go as far as walking out through the kitchen and reentering the building somewhere else," Russo admits.

Anthony Russo was called names like Bojangles, Twinkle Toes and Dancing Queen while growing up. Photo by Christopher Erk, courtesy Russo.


His experience is sadly similar to what many male dancers endure throughout their training and careers: name calling, physical intimidation, cyberbullying, sometimes even death threats.

Although girls, too, can be bullying victims, it's far less common, as our culture views dance as a more acceptable activity for them to pursue. Boys who dance are frequently stereotyped as gay and mocked for participating in what many consider to be a feminine art.

As conversations about bullying heat up throughout the country, with the role of social media and the effects on adolescent mental health emerging as related concerns, there's no better time to consider what the dance world can do to help male students of all ages feel safe and accepted.

Teachers Can Make a Difference

Many male dancers agree that positive adult role models are essential for bullying prevention. Dancer and choreographer Chris Bell, who remembers being incessantly called a "faggot" throughout middle and high school in San Antonio, Texas, says he channeled his anger into his school work, focusing on excelling academically.

Now a performer with Eryc Taylor Dance and dendy/donovan projects, he realizes how necessary it is for teachers—both in academic schools and dance studios—to speak up.

Chris Bell says teachers need to stop bullying in its tracks. Photo by Craig Macleod, courtesy Bell.


"The second that you hear anything demeaning or demoralizing, stop it and talk about it," he says. "You have to acknowledge that it's wrong, explain why it's wrong and then move on."

The message is especially effective if teachers work in schools that support dance as part of the curriculum. "The dance world should get into public schools, especially younger grades, to show what both men and women do in the dance world—any kind of dance," says Andy Jacobs, a modern/contemporary dancer and choreographer in New York City. "It's all going to open up their eyes and show them there's no boundaries to what you can like."

Dance Should Be Introduced More Like a Sport

Tap dancer Leo Lamontagne, assistant director at North Andover School of Dance and former company member with Chicago's Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, asks what would happen if dance were treated more like sports in school. "What if dance were introduced at the same age that basketball was? What if dance were used to teach gross motor skills?" he asks. "Bullies are intimidated by what they don't understand, so it's up to us to educate not just dancers but also non-dancers on what dance can be."

"So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Peter Sabasino suggests creating more performing arts schools altogether. "Then more kids would look at dance as a cool thing to do," he says.

Peter Sabasino suggests more performing arts schools could help dance look "cooler" among kids. Photo by Matthew Carby, courtesy Sabasino.


We Need More Role Models

More male ambassadors in popular culture could also help. "We could certainly use another Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire to show how cool dance is, not just showing hip-hop dancers as cool or men as strippers, like in Magic Mike," says Todd Shanks, an artist in residence at Dean College. "Honestly, though, dance doesn't have to be masculine to be cool. Talent doesn't have a sexual preference."

Todd Shanks feels another Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly could show that men dance, too. Photo courtesy Dean College/Paladino School of Dance.


But maybe we don't have to wait for a dance celebrity: Young men can also be role models for each other. "We need to expose boys to other male dancers, not just the professionals," Lamontagne says. "We need to come together to support our boys to support one another."

He suggests that competitions and conventions offer classes exclusively to boys, as all-male classes can sometimes be impossible in many small communities, where few male students are in attendance.

That is exactly the idea behind the Male Dancer Conference, launched last year by the founders of online dancewear store Boys Dance Too. The event gives boys a chance to be surrounded by their peers in classes led by role models like Sascha Radetsky and Alex Wong.


Similarly, Earl Mosley's Hearts of Men intensive offers two weeks of training and networking for male dancers. The National Dance Education Organization also held a symposium last year for teachers of male students to address how dance can attract more boys.

Power in numbers, after all, may be a valuable tactic. Bell points out that all dancers who are bullied have something in common—a shared experience that has made them stronger. "These experiences help you to become a better, more enriched person," he says. "A lot of the kids who bully want some kind of essential quality that you have. They want the freedom that you already have to do what you love."

Showstopper's National Finals Opening Number Performance

Showstopper has been making its impact on the dance world since 1978. Before then, dancers didn't have a stage to perform on, the opportunity to learn from peers, or a competitive outlet like most sports. Debbie Roberts recognized this missing piece in the dance community and that is how America's first and longest running dance competition, Showstopper, was born. Debbie taught dance for over 26 years and owned and operated her own dance studio for 20 years. She is now the owner and National Director of Showstopper, along side her husband, Dave Roberts. Dancer, teacher, business owner, author, and mother, Debbie has made dance her life's career.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

As teachers and studio owners, your lives are full of stressors—everything from harried recital weeks to curriculum overhauls to building-maintenance issues, not to mention addressing the needs and concerns of all your students and parents. How you view and cope with a stressful situation can have a direct influence on how you experience it.

You already know it's important to eat right, exercise and get good sleep to keep yourself from feeling run into the ground. You may even use deep breathing to calm or center yourself in tense moments. (If not, check out our breathing-exercise sidebar.) But Joel Minden, a cognitive behavioral therapist who works with dancers in California, says while physical coping strategies can be helpful, they alone aren't enough. It's even more important to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. If you begin practicing psychological stress management as part of your routine, along with relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, you will be better prepared for the crisis moments.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Via Beyoncé's Instagram

This past week, Brianna Bundick-Kelly broke the internet when she posted a video of her dancing Beyoncé's Beychella, only hours after the live performance. The Virginia State University freshman, who's Twitter handle is "Briyonce," told Business Insider that she taught herself the choreography in 40 minutes. For dance teachers, this might seem just like another day at the office–dancers are supposed to pick up choreography fast, right? But Bundick-Kelly gets some serious props for her near flawless slaying of the Queen B's latest moves from a video, a feat she's no stranger to.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Artists in The Royal Ballet perform The Age of Anxiety. Photo by Joe Plimmer, courtesy of The Royal Ballet

The Royal Ballet, under the artistic direction of Kevin O'Hare, will be screening the company's Bernstein Celebration as a part of the Royal Opera House's 2017–18 cinema season April 20–May 20. The program celebrates American composer Leonard Bernstein with work from the company's three associate choreographers, including Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety and new works from Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor. The screenings will be held in movie theaters around the world, with nearly 50 in the United States and Canada.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Marueen Straub, left, co-owns the studio with her mother Diane, right.

Last week, the Professional Arts Academy in Edgewater, New Jersey, caught fire, and the entire studio was destroyed.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored