Loyola Marymount University’s (LMU) successful initiative to bring virtual dance instruction to local middle schools during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic provided a creative lifeline for many students. Three years later, it has expanded to offer a repertory-style model of in-person traveling lectures, demonstrations, and performances to Los Angeles-area middle and high schools. This initiative, now called the Community Dance Project (CDP), is funded by the Max H. Gluck Foundation, and is rooted in the desire to share the transformative impact of dance with students in under-resourced communities where access to social and emotional support systems are lacking.

During the pandemic, CDP offered a study guide and virtual dance instruction of Bill T. Jones’ work “Deep Blue Sea” to middle school students. In the post-pandemic world, the project has grown to include a teaching-based program that brings dance into the classrooms of Title I middle schools, and a performance-based program that presents high-quality dance performances to high school students. The dances and choreography are then critically examined and deconstructed through interactive lectures and presentations.

Through CDP, LMU dancers and faculty members have visited Foshay Learning Center, Gabriella Charter School, Fremont High School, Hamilton High School, and Inglewood Unified School District. They have also invited young students to LMU, where they have learned about emotional resilience, self-expression, inclusivity, spirituality, and racial and gender equality, through dance.

For faculty members Bernard Brown and Taryn Vander Hoop, who spearhead the performance-based branch, one goal of CDP is to show high school students that learning, research, and academics can intersect with art, creativity, energy, and joy. Kristen Smiarowski, clinical associate professor of dance, heads up the teaching-based program, which focuses on teaching middle schoolers the work of legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones. She connects Jones’ choreographic manifestations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Herman Melville’s writings with their academic study, and allows them to dance and explore making movement themselves.

In 2022, the LMU group centered the experience around “Glimmer”: a dance choreographed by Brown in Fall 2021. The dance touches on themes of spirituality, centering Black women, superheroes, community uplift, and empathy. “‘Glimmer’ is in service to my history and my lineage as an African American who was raised by an African American woman, so I wanted to honor her and also honor all people who feel like outsiders in our society,” Brown said. “It was very important to physicalize what it’s like to lift up the people who feel like outsiders, to create a sense of community, of working together, of empathy, so we can progress as a society.”

For the 2023 iteration of CDP performances, a dance by Vander Hoop will accompany “Glimmer.” “When will I be?” examines ideas of “home” as not just a sense of place, but the body itself, and asks us to confront how we care for our mental health, ourselves, and each other, in a late-stage capitalistic society. The lecture/demonstration involves discussion with the high school students about home and homelessness – what it means to feel “at home” in location and being, and what it means to live in a time and location where homelessness is ever-present.

In the lecture/demonstrations, students explore the choreographic process, deconstructing the history and meaning behind the dances. The demonstrations allow students to connect the meaning behind the dances to the final performance, and to experience the artistic process in a completely new way, regardless of dance experience or interest.

Many of the high school students have never seen a live, professional dance performance. In reflections captured after the project in 2022, one student said, “The fact that I was able to view a dance performance up close rather than through a screen was my favorite part of the experience. My favorite part of the dance was when all of the dancers got together at one point to help a girl who had fallen. They all joined in to help one another out.”

There is an equally powerful impact for LMU students who participate in the project because they learn to translate elite-level artistry to young audiences. By engaging directly with the students, they observe firsthand what dance can do to transform the energy and attention of individuals and communities. Due to the popularity of repertory experiences in undergraduate dance programs, Brown and Vander Hoop hope to make this project a permanent feature of LMU Dance, bringing not just repertory, but also hands-on teaching experiences to LMU students.

“There’s so much to be learned through embodiment, through doing and practice, which allows us to transmit ideas and concepts physically, which in many ways can be more meaningful than to simply articulate the same ideas,” Brown said. “This type of experience is very sought after in dance education – to have a repertory built into the program where students go out and perform. To offer this experience to our students and to our community is really a dream, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

Vander Hoop believes artists must also be flexible in their performance spaces and open to new forms of audience engagement—a lesson that is a vital part of a well-rounded dance education. “We are continually exploring avenues to teach lessons in innovative ways. The repertory model, touring around local area high schools, benefits both LMU student dancers and our surrounding communities,” she said. “It’s so advantageous for our students to take the work they’ve developed on stage, under the lights, and perform it in a new space. These experiences are so impactful and important as part of an education as an artist, because you will continue to do those things throughout a professional career.”

For Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo, professor and chair of the Dance Department, the project is particularly meaningful because of LMU’s focus on educating the whole person. “LMU’s mission is one of social action,” LeBlanc Loo said. “It’s really about creating students who are active and responsible citizens. What dance can teach the community and young students out in the world, is the ability to take an idea and manifest it in the body, which gives it a whole new significance. For this program to be at LMU is incredibly meaningful, because it activates our mission.”

To learn more about the Community Dance Project, please watch the following video:

By Kate Shirley, Associate Director of Academic Communications for the College of Communication and Fine Arts at Loyola Marymount University