At a typical monthly assembly at New Highland Academy (NHA), where I teach dance as a Luna teaching artist, I experienced a moment of personal transformation. Acting as emcee, teacher Ms. E struck up “Down by the Bay” on her guitar and in moments the room was filled with exuberant singing voices. Such joyful scenes are common at NHA, where the arts—music, visual art, and dance—are central to the school culture. School assemblies and “artist of the month” awards showcase arts’ importance, and this month’s gathering featured a dance performance by a class of adrenaline-pumped 2nd graders. Dancing with expression, poise and focus, the act of performing transformed them from a squirrely pack of reluctant listeners into serious dance artists. As the applause died down, the Vice Principal buzzed in over the loud speaker:
We are officially on lock down.
Local police have informed us of violent activity outside the school.
No one may leave the cafeteria until further notice.
Gasps and murmurs spread through the room. Some kindergartners broke into tears. Instinctively, Ms. E. snatched up her guitar. “If we’re stuck here, we might as well sing!” And sing we did. The students’ favorite was a tune in Spanish that had them dance various body parts in different ways. I was struck by how absorbed they were in the movement. With tear marks still on their cheeks, Kindergartners smiled, sang and danced with gusto.
At once I felt a new sense of gratitude. Though gun violence—and the fear and suspicion it breeds—is a threat these children face every day, within the locked doors of that room, joy, community and expression overflowed. Situations like this one remind me that the arts are a life-giving necessity. Children’s creative expression remains greater than the forces of hate and division.