A Conversation on Dance, Education, Leadership & Values
Luna’s Professional Learning Manager Jochelle Pereña (JP) and Director of Community & Culture Cherie Hill (CH) discuss their roles as artists, educators, administrators, and leaders as Cherie transitions from Luna to a new role as Communications Manager at California Humanities. They consider what they value, where those values intersect with those of Luna, how they dance, teach, and lead with their values in mind, and what leadership means to them in this conversation piece.
CH – I joined Luna Dance Institute in 2012 because I believe dance can strengthen communities. I began taking dance classes at 5 years old and continue until now at age 40. One time I told my leadership coach that dance is my best friend. The art form has grown up with me, and no matter where I live, my age, or the people I am in touch with, dance is always there. My coach, Craig Coble, laughed and advised that instead of seeing dance as my best friend, I should see myself as my best friend. Touche!
I had an eagerness to bring dance to children because I wanted to give them the empowerment and love I experienced as a child and now. I choreographed and staged my first dance piece at sixteen years old through my high school dance program. I loved having an idea or a vision and watching it come alive on bodies with music, and formations, creating a full-blown expression way more potent than what started in my head. Making choreography grounds me and helps me understand my place in our world. I think that children who are allowed to create and make dances experience a similar feeling.
JP – I love how you talk about dance as your best friend. As for you, dance has always been there for me. It is both the home I can always return to, and the path home, to my best self. I remember dancing in my living room as a small child, costumed in ribbons. Even then, dancing inspired profound joy in me, especially as a quiet kid who didn’t like talking. In dance I found a way to express myself that felt more authentic and complete than anything I could say with words.
CH – Yes, I was a quiet child too.
JP – And my natural way of observing, processing, and making sense of the world is non-linear. Making dances offered a way for me to cycle and spiral, fold and unfold through what I wanted to convey. What has driven me in my improvisation and choreography has been the desire to discover something new, something surprising in my familiar body. In part, it’s this same dynamic of curiosity and possibility that draws me to teaching and learning. I love supporting children in exploring and stretching all that they can do, and then observing them surprise themselves: “did you see me do that?” It’s both thrilling and beautiful to watch children as they begin to sense their own potential, their own unique voice, and in turn, I get to see them and how they perceive the world in a new way. It expands my own perspective. For me that is the gift of teaching, that I continue to learn, too. I sought to join Luna – nine years ago now! – because it held these very values of curiosity, creativity, teaching and learning, at the heart.
CH – Yes! Learning to compose dance is a type of leadership in itself. One of the aspects I am grateful for at Luna, is the opportunity to grow in leadership. When I attended the National Guild for Community Arts Education Leadership Institute in 2017 I discovered core values. That first year I chose family, well-being, and love as my top values. The next year I added service. These values are still my core, and I often reflect on how to live them and allow them to inform my work and leadership.
Family is crucial to me. I prioritize taking care of myself, my life partner, and two children. I see many connections to my personal value of family to the work I do at Luna. I taught in the MPACT family dance class for eight years, helping families find connections through dance. I also participated in parent-child dance classes with both my sons.
When I was interviewing to be a Dance Teaching Artist at Luna, I saw the title of Patricia Reedy’s book, Body, Mind, and Spirit in Action. I closely relate to this connection and find it imperative that we, as humans and especially leaders, practice a holistic sense of wellness. As a leader, I advocate for self-care, take breaks and vacations, dance for self, and release stress and tension through mindful actions. A classroom teacher once told me that they were impressed by how calm I was and that they would start channeling this type of energy. This sense of well-being permeates in who I am as a person, artist, educator, and administrator.
On an equity and inclusion panel hosted by Luna Dance, panelist Eddie Madril said, “equity is love.”
JP – I remember that too. It was a simple but profound statement that has stuck with me.
CH – Love is so important and feels so good. When I consciously began to use this value in my work, I taught at an elementary school in the flatlands of deep East Oakland. Often, the classes and environment felt harsh, and I would walk away tense and frustrated.
Along with changing my curricular approach, I began to think about love while interacting with each student. This play on the mind was really fascinating because I began to let go of always directing and making sure students had something to do. I would stop playing the drum to hear what a child might be saying, even if it was long-winded. I took the time to listen to their stories, even when they’d get antsy in the hall. During this experiment, I noticed more students would cling on to me, give me hugs, and ask me not to leave. Through radiating love, there was a more profound sense of trust.
JP – Yes! One of my favorite teaching practices is to incorporate a free dance in each class. That might look like a jam or dance party, or improvised performances, or a freeze dance. Mostly it’s a time when I step back and watch, really observe each dancer, and the group as a whole. I practice listening with my whole being. Who are these children? What are they sharing about themselves through their movement? What kinds of choices are they making? What inspires their dancing? I practice letting go, as you said, relinquishing control, and celebrating each child right where they are. A fellow dance educator in our Summer Institute this year described it as “stepping back so that my students can step into their own power”. Yes to this too! I also think of it as the artist in me sees and honors the artist in you. And for me this is an expression of love.
I try to cultivate this in my classes, not just between me and the students, but between all the dancers. How can we hold space for each other to take creative risks, step into our power and embody freedom? How can we see and celebrate the artist in each of us? I remember a group of 4th graders I taught several years ago. When we started in September, they were all over the place as a group. Often I would arrive and a quarter of the class had already been sent from the room for punitive reasons, and another quarter were determined to watch from the side, often making fun of the other kids. It took almost all year, with lots of group conversations and playing, watching and responding to each other through dance, for the whole class to dance together. And there was still one student who hid under the desks. Then one day, we were experimenting with different music, and talking about the movement it inspired. This boy crawled out from under the desks to the middle of the room and started dancing! He had never danced in class before. The whole class, who several months before might have laughed at him, cheered him on! We all saw this student differently as he bravely took center stage. And there’s something incredibly potent in that moment of a child seeing themselves be seen expressing their creative freedom. Cultivating trust, embodying love, celebrating freedom. This is so essential, especially right now.
At Luna, we are considered artists and teachers, but also leaders. What does that word mean to you?
CH – At first I resisted the label “leader” due to the lack of great leadership examples in my life. I thought to be a leader meant to model a personality and ethic that I do not agree with. I have grown to understand that leadership is more than a title. For me it is about how you treat others, and how you work with a team or community to better situations and empower those around you. There are people with big titles who are not leading, and those without a title who are. I think your actions speak towards your leadership, even if you resist the nomenclature.
JP – I also felt initially challenged embracing the label. Am I any different with a title? Is it the job that pushes me to leadership? Who gets to say that I’m a leader? I agree with you – while leadership is about sharing your voice, it is also about listening to and empowering those around you. It’s about challenging your biases so that you can better listen. It’s about recognizing your power and privilege, and using it to speak up, or to help pull someone else up. And it’s about living your values.