Performance Spirit


Elvia Marta

Music choices from San Francisco School of the Arts' Elvia Marta


As dance department director at San Francisco School of the Arts, Elvia Marta stages one of the most anticipated dance events in the area, her students’ annual performance at the Cowell Theater. The level of ability demonstrated by the dancers makes it hard for sold-out audiences to believe that they’re watching high school students. What’s Marta’s secret? She chooses to produce only one show per year (the school’s other art departments typically put on two), to give her students adequate time to prepare and work on technique. But it’s more than just technique that makes her young students perform at a near-professional level.

“In order to draw an audience in, you have to be so wide open and put out so much energy,” Marta says. “I want my students to find a sense of freedom and abandonment, and I push them to the level of performance all the time, even if it’s just class. I call it dancing on the edge––where it gets scary—and I tell them, ‘I want you to fly.’ Their spirits come out in ways that I can’t even explain. And the audience eats it up.”

The Panama native has danced with Consuelo Atlas’ company Expansion and the San Francisco Opera ballet company, worked with singers Gil-Scott Heron and Roberta Flack and holds a degree in dance and a teaching credential from San Francisco State University. Marta has been at the School of the Arts for 29 years, and she also teaches adult classes at ODC Dance Commons. She calls her style “modern jazz blues.” Strongly Horton-based, it also includes Limón, Graham, ballet, Afro, jazz and salsa. “This style allows me to be flexible, so I’m not having to teach the same thing all the time,” she says. “It feels really rich, and I like the challenge.” With so much variety, Marta has the freedom to go in many directions when choosing music for class and choreography. Here, she shares a few of her favorites. DT


Artist: Gotan Project

Album: Tango 3.0

“I like to use Gotan Project for pliés with my high school students. The group also has beautiful songs for across-the-floor that have a tango feeling to them.”




Artist: Andreas Vollenweider

Album: Air

“When music is a little slower and in a 3-count, I can use some Limón influence in my work. In the Limón technique, there are a lot of releases from your center, so my students really love it when I use Vollenweider’s music because it allows for dancing that is really freeing.”


Artist: Christina Aguilera

Song: “I’m OK”

“I try to do choreography for my students that is meaningful, so I like to pick songs that have a strong message. I just did a piece to ‘I’m OK,’ which is all about domestic violence and abuse. I like when dance has a relationship to life in some way.”


Artist: Nina Simone

Album: The Very Best of Nina Simone

“Nina Simone keeps me connected to the spiritual depth that I found as a young salsa dancer. I use her music for choreography a lot. She lends herself really well to blues dancing.”



Albums: Buddha Bar I–X

“I use this series at the very beginning of class for my set warm-ups and tendus. I love world music, and these albums really connect to the part of me that is into meditation. They have a lot of songs that have an Indian influence and are very spiritual, which I love because dance is like my church; it’s my religion.”


Photo by Andy Mogg, courtesy of Elvia Marta

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