These SF Bay Companies Are Empowering Youth to Lead on Social Justice

Layeelah Muhammad, courtesy DAYPC

This summer's outcry to fully see and celebrate Black lives was a wake-up call to dance organizations.

And while many dance education programs are newly inspired to incorporate social justice into their curriculums, four in the San Francisco Bay area have been elevating marginalized youth and focusing on social change for decades.

GIRLFLY, Grrrl Brigade, The Alphabet Rockers and Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company fuse dance with education around race, gender, climate change and more, empowering young artists to become leaders in their communities. Here's how they do it.


Five masked teen girls hang on contraptions hanging from the ceiling in a studio

Courtesy GIRLFLY

When adults actually trust youth to lead, they lead, says Jo Kreiter, founder of GIRLFLY, a program centered on exploring topics like immigration and housing insecurity with low-income teenagers. Students research the topics in-depth with experts, and then make original dance work in response, incorporating styles as various as aerial, hip hop and contemporary.

This summer's GIRLFLY program concentrated on the school-to-prison pipeline. Jasmine Brown, an activist photographer whose family history contains incarceration, led discussions with Kreiter and the dancers about the prison industrial complex as well as students' own stories of incarceration in their families. Brown helped the participants create powerful self-portraits, and Kreiter and GIRLFLY Flyaway dancer Bianca Cabrera guided the students in choreographing a dance about disrupting the pipeline, harnessing the terms "freedom" and "constraint" to generate movement.

GIRLFLY is treated like a job and seeks mature, responsible students. Instead of an audition, there is an application and interview process. And instead of paying, those who join actually receive money to participate—a $500 stipend that often pays for transportation to and from the project site. The company works hard to find collaborating teachers who look like the students (99 percent are Black and brown, and some are gender-expansive) and who don't have careers students have necessarily heard of (e.g., housing advocate).

The result is a program that engages students in powerful interpersonal work, and produces outspoken leaders eager to educate others about the issues they've explored in GIRLFLY. But Kreiter admits that she can't take total credit for the way that students leave the program as leaders. "A 15-year-old that is drawn to an artist-and-activist training program is already self-determined," she says.

Grrrl Brigade

Seven women in bright red dresses in a triangle formation onstage, raising one fist in the air and leaning to the side

Courtesy Grrrl Brigade

Just a couple neighborhoods away in the Mission District, Grrrl Brigade is empowering girls with social justice and leadership skills through dance training and performance combined with education on everything from self-care (meditation, boundary setting, having difficult conversations) to current events (Black Lives Matter, homelessness, climate change).

Grrrl Brigade youth, who are accepted by audition, perform modern-jazz dance, Afro-Cuban modern, hip hop and taiko (Japanese drumming), and have performed at major San Francisco events, like the WorldWideWomen Girls' Festival, the Walk Against Rape and the de Young Museum's youth and social justice festival.

This summer, Grrrl Brigade classes took place in three separate pods of 12 girls, as allowed by the City of San Francisco. One pod of 12- and 13-year-olds investigated the meaning of leadership, and wrote speeches as if they were addressing the crowd of thousands that had attended the youth-led BLM march just days before at Mission High School. The program culminated in an intimate performance during which family and friends marched down Mission Street, and the students gave their speeches in front of a set of protest signs while an ensemble of other Grrrl Brigade participants danced beside them.

Grrrl Brigade teacher Areyla Faeron finds that the community and sisterhood the program provides can have a lasting impact. Students—who sometimes stay with the program from age 3 to 18—make lifelong friendships, and have gone on to everything from internships at the United Nations, BAs in feminist studies and performing on Broadway.

But the biggest takeaway from the program, says Faeron, are the life skills—students learn how to connect across differences and to speak their ideas to large crowds. "When we believe in them, their capacity to self-actualize soars," says Faeron.

Alphabet Rockers

Four young kids in graphic t shirts pose, looking very cool

Nino Fernandez, courtesy Alphabet Rockers

Based in the East Bay, the Alphabet Rockers are reaching family and K–5 school audiences nationwide with their Grammy-nominated music and hip-hop dance curriculum. And kids themselves are doing the teaching—the Rockers are made up of sixth- and seventh-graders, as well as adults, who amplify messages about racial justice, gender diversity, nonconformity and community.

While the Alphabet Rockers offer albums, podcasts and an anti-racism video series, it's the dancing that actualizes the work, says co-founder Tommy Soulati Shepherd. "Since we've been making music, we've been tying choreography and curriculum to every song," he says. And when the messages are embodied in dance, "we're not just listening to it, we are living this music," says Samara Atkins, a choreographer and singer for the group.

In a normal year, Atkins and the team travel to elementary schools across the country to perform and teach, having discussions with young children about internal worth and power and helping kids write their own songs about racial justice and empathy. This summer, following quarantine, the Alphabet Rockers created Rock the Block, an online dance party open to kids anywhere interested in making change.

The Rockers often leave schools having implemented new practices and ideas, such as Indigenous land acknowledgements. In addition to giving kids the tools to express themselves and explore difficult topics through song and dance, the Rockers help schools build healthier, more inclusive and more arts-focused cultures.

Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company

Three plus teenagers in DAYPC t shirts lean over, smiling, at an outdoor performance

Brandon Tauszik, courtesy DAYPC

Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company (DAYPC), an audition-based and pay-what-you-can ensemble of teenagers from different economic situations, races and ethnicities, has been has been using the arts to inspire social change among East Bay youth for nearly 30 years. The teens work together to research, write and choreograph multimedia shows that incorporate hip hop, aerial dance, monologues and education about sociopolitical themes. They draw sold-out audiences in thousand-seat theaters.

In order to create a safe space for DAYPC students to explore difficult topics, director Rashidi Omari and the other teachers actively cultivate relationships with them. The group does trust walks, goes on a weekend retreat, and practices opening up to one another. Often they circle-up to share "If you really knew me, you'd know that..." This vulnerability primes the content and quality of their performances and their activism.

This year, in lieu of their normal spring production, the students collaborated with poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph and playwright/producer Kyla Searle on a film, entitled The Black (W)hole, about East Bay youth who lost their lives to gun violence, police brutality and mental health challenges. "Our show went from stage to reality," says Omari. "We have spoken about BLM in a number of shows already, but this year many of our youth were the people organizing and participating in marches." The film blurs the line between documentary and movie, following the teens as they engage with the protests and showing how they are "able, willing and being asked to speak their minds."

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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