Design for Sharing , CAP UCLA’s free K-12 arts education program, has a long history of making the arts accessible for young audiences. Using the arts to encourage creativity, learning and exploration , DFS offers professional performances and hands-on arts activities to public school students across Los Angeles. Since our founding in 1969, more than half a million students have experienced the thrill of a live performance in the iconic setting of Royce Hall.
In 2008, we undertook a new project, hoping to give students an opportunity to go beyond the one-time experience of observing an arts event and become active participants in the creative process. Working closely with the faculty of the about-to-open UCLA Community School, we developed the Design for Sharing Residency Program: a 22-week series of in-class dance, movement, theater, creative writing and visual arts activities taught by professional teaching artists from Design for Sharing and local dance company CONTRA-TIEMPO.
This year—the fifth of this successful partnership –we explored the theme “Pieces of Us”, asking 200 4th, 5th and 6th graders to consider the various roles we all play in our communities and what helps us to create our own individual identities.
We began, way back in September, with simple exercises that encourage students to express themselves vocally and physically. We moved on to salsa rueda, a form of salsa danced in a circle with a leader calling out the steps. Later, students applied those skills to devise their own creative movement representing ideas culled from their weekly writing assignments.
The sixth graders, many in their third year with us, also took on the idea of power. Using movement activities and writing prompts, they reflected on the power structures they encounter every day, how power can be abused, and how it can be shared. Some of their insights were included in a group poem:
We have the power to choose!
I have the power to speak and to listen
I choose to follow the golden rule
I choose to be respectful,
To be a kind person
I see smiles around the world
I understand that each person is unique
It matters that I have freedom
I have the power to share my feelings
I have the power to change my thoughts
I have the power to defend myself with words
Everyone deserves their own rights
I choose to be joyful every day
We have the power to choose!
Students created collage self-portraits using varied photos of themselves and words from their poems. The completed self-portraits became the backdrop for their presentation.
A few weeks ago, they had the chance to share these lines, and others at the program’s culminating dance and spoken word presentation. Our students gathered in a crowded auditorium, packed with younger schoolmates and smiling parents to present the poems, creative movement and salsa rueda they had worked on all year.
In that setting, with creaking folding chairs and smartphone cameras clicking away, it’s easy to focus on the cute factor. Of course it is cute. Kids dancing and reciting poems are undeniably adorable. But it is important to remember that we have asked these students to do something that most adults struggle with: to think abstractly, express themselves honestly, and create a community where everyone feels safe enough to do so.
We couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride as we watched our fifth class of Residency program participants dance their last rueda, moving around the circle like clockwork. The dance seems simple on the surface—the steps aren’t complicated, the caller keeps everyone on track—but a successful rueda demands that the participants, both individually and communally, choose to be fully present. That’s the foundation of human connection and the prerequisite for creativity. And it’s a lot harder than it looks.