On a recent Saturday morning, dance studios at UC Riverside were filled with music, motion, culture, and lots of excitement.
The inaugural “Celebrating our Constellation: UCR + RCC + AB Miller” event brought together a group of 43 Black and Latinx students from UCR, Riverside City College in Riverside, and A.B. Miller High School in Fontana. Faculty members from each of these institutions want to create support, education, financial resources, and opportunities for Inland Empire youth — primarily Black and Latinx students wanting to pursue a career in dance.
“We are just trying to solidify the potentials between our schools, to demonstrate to students and their families that there is a career path in dance and related fields,” said Joel Mejía Smith, associate professor and chair of UCR’s Department of Dance. “The intention is to bolster dance education in the Inland Empire.”
The daylong event on April 30, exposed students to movement classes that included Hawaiian Hula, Korean, Latin social, Hip-Hop, improvisation, and composition sessions, led by UCR faculty Toni Pasion, DaEun Jung, Patricia "Patty" Huerta, and Brandon J. The day also included learning Language of Dance, a system that records human movement; in dance, this particular system is based on 17 symbols that serve as an alphabet to help dancers physically narrate and conceptualize their dance performances.
Mejía Smith, who obtained an MFA at UCR in 2004, has been a professional dancer since 2000. His most recent work articulates body and research involving gender, sexuality politics, and queer/Latinx histories. In creating the event, Mejía Smith worked alongside Rosa Rodríguez-Frazier, assistant professor of dance at RCC, and Nicole Robinson, director of the Conservatory of Dance Program at A.B. Miller High School.
For decades the three have been devoted to making room, to creating opportunities for students to flourish. Mejía Smith, who has been performing and choreographing with his professional dance partner Liz Casebolt since 2006, mentored Rodríguez-Frazier, ’09, MFA ’15 while she was at UCR. And when Rodríguez-Frazier introduced him to Robinson, symbiotic energies flowed between the three.
“There has been a history of our students and faculty circulating these three institutions, so it made sense to work together and pull resources for the betterment of our students,” said Rodríguez-Frazier, assistant professor of dance at RCC and co-director of the A.B. Miller High School Dance and Conservatory. She is also co-founder and artistic collaborator of Primera Generación Dance Collective, which was created by four graduate students who met at UCR and uses experimental choreography and research to explore Mexican American identity.
Having that deeper understanding between history, culture, and dance, allows these academics to offer dance experiences that personally connect with students. A majority of students attending A.B. Miller and RCC will be the first in their families to earn a college degree. Creating a pipeline for them would be the ultimate goal, said Robinson, who added that the team hopes to raise funds to offer this program again next year.
“One of the questions we are asking through this collaboration is, can we engage students in dance for their entire academic career? Meaning, can we provide an opportunity from kindergarten all the way to Ph.D.?” said Robinson, who since 1995 has been teaching dance and developing projects and workshops for students and teachers in the Fontana Unified School District. The district’s Conservatory of Dance is the only program of its type on a high school campus in the Inland Empire.
Robinson this type of collaborative is unique to the Inland Empire. “This also becomes representative of how the arts can be programmed in communities of color and show the impact of what can happen to these communities by simply creating opportunities,” Robinson said.
During the event, high school, community college, and UCR students danced in the same space, under the same instructor. The experience felt natural, there was no comparisons or distinctions due to age or experience, said Nohely Gomez, 22, a dance major and psychology minor at UCR.
Chav'nair Stockersolo, 25, an RCC student, said the experience allowed for “creative expression … and a bunch of energy and movements flowing.”
Among the participants were also Naomi Grijalva, 17, Kassandra Hernández, 18, and Mia Jones, 15, all A.B. Miller students. Having the opportunity to dance alongside RCC and UCR students — and being in front of professors at UCR — felt intimidating at first, the three confessed.
“I loved all the classes, it’s been the best experience I’ve ever had,” said Grijalva.
Jones said she had never danced Latin or Hula before. Taking masterclasses, learning some history, and receiving instruction from dance faculty made her enjoy the day, she said.
Hernández said it was an opportunity to explore new dance styles, such as Korean and hip-hop, and to experience being around college students.
“It has been a really great day, this is why I enjoy dance,” said Hernández during a masterclass break. “When I came here, I got to experience different cultures, to see different dance styles. And this was also the first time visiting UCR — I love it.”
The evening concluded with a panel discussion and performances by 40 students. The performances included a powerful presentation on how social media has invaded everyday life. As the dancers performed, the audience also heard and saw images radio soundwaves projected onto the walls of the room.
Those evening performances pulled on the senses — and the heart. Chav, the RCC student performed a piece on homelessness. As she danced, voices and images of these Inland Empire community members played in the background. Her body movement physically explained the tears that fell from their faces.
Encouraging young dancers to dance from a culture and community they embrace, allowed for another powerful performance to a potpourri of Spanish language music, including songs by the late Vicente “Chente” Fernández, a legend of Mexican ranchera music.