05/22/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Cultivating Leaders Through Dance

By Patricia Reedy, Director of Teaching and Learning at Luna Dance Institute

"I used to be crying and whining all the time, but now I am a leader and I do my best." This is the response of nine-year-old Maria* to the question, "What have you learned in dance over the past three years?" Maria is one of the 250 children dancing at New Highland Academy (NHA) in East Oakland, California. The families of NHA live in East Oakland neighborhoods where gun violence, poverty and school lock-downs are everyday occurrences. NHA was restructured in 2006 by the Oakland Unified School District -- a district that is perennially underfunded, politically tumultuous and continuously (and often desperately) seeking solutions to state and federal mandates. Yet, thanks to a visionary principal, for one hour each and every week, NHA children experience safety, joy and the power of expressing themselves through the language of dance.

Dance is articulated through the moving body -- giving children an opportunity to connect to each other and our society in a form of communication that involves the physical self, the cognitive self and the emotional self simultaneously. Dance is primal to our humanity and existence -- we are wired to move in order to survive. Two significant aspects of Luna's dance program at NHA concern gender equity. Seventy percent of NHA dancers are boys. During an interview, one fifth-grade teacher states, "I can tell you what dance has done for my kids -- today, it is no longer considered 'cool' [for boys] to stand back and not take risks. Risk-taking in dance, trying new things is expected." Teachers are also thrilled that girls are experiencing a dance curriculum that is about power, using their efforts, energy and strength to propel their bodies through space and share their stories through the craft of choreography. Many of these feminist-leaning teachers were happy to have their pre-conceived notion of dance as a "feminine" activity turned on its head.

As with all the creative arts, dance allows people to feel connected to friends, family and community. When this connection occurs, empathy is cultivated, bonds are strengthened and new communication channels are opened. The arts provide children and youth with opportunities to discover and develop their interests in healthy, resilient and rewarding ways.

Luna has partnered with NHA for the past six years to create a culture of dance that is accessible, consistent and comprehensive. Every child from kindergarten through fifth grade experiences a sequence of dance learning that leads to more complex creative work. Families dance together during family dance days. Students participate in community dance events such as One Dance launching National Dance Week in San Francisco's Union Square or Anna Halprin's Planetary Dance for Earth Day.

New Highland Academy also boasts increased test scores, high teacher retention and low absenteeism over the past six years. Is this because of the dance program? Who knows? What is known is that dance is integral to the core of curriculum at NHA culminating in dance performance of student choreography as the focus of the 5th grade graduation.