What was missing from my performing arts education

My time at a performing arts high school about 60 miles north of Philadelphia was an integral part of my adolescent years. Without that training, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I credit my time there with planting early seeds of creativity and for equipping me with technique that prepared me well for college level training, improvisation, composition, and dance history. I had memorable performances with peers and excellent direction from teachers that taught me about professionalism, artistry, and commitment to the art form.

 Photo by: Jeremy Zimmerman -  jeremy-zim.com

Photo by: Jeremy Zimmerman - jeremy-zim.com


When I think back to that time in my life, I feel waves of nostalgia and self-compassion for who I was in all my angst - on the brink of many formative experiences that would bring me closer to living my best life in every sense. If my younger self had just a glimpse of who I would be, so much of my angst would have been alleviated. My awkward, shy 15-year-old self would be impressed with the independent, charismatic artist I have become.

It’s common for high schoolers to experience angst they can’t name. Maybe the only difference now is that I have language to clarify my experiences. As a twenty something, I continue to feel things deeply, but I have more patience and skills to process those experiences. The angst hasn’t gone away. I’ve just built my support system to care for that angst. Something that I would say to my younger self would be to think about the future less. And maybe I thought about the future so much because my context at the time didn’t fully meet my holistic needs.

Now that I’m in my mid/late twenties, I understand what was missing from my training.  Based on where I went to high school and where it was situated in the suburbs, I look back at my 16-year-old-self and I see how training with Euro American instructors and learning to express myself through only Eurocentric forms just wasn’t enough. I had excellent training, but I didn’t have role models that gave me an understanding of my cultural legacy.

My late teens to early twenties were critical in reshaping my understanding of this.  I was was transformed by social justice discourse, community based art making, interfaith activism, and recovering my connection with the Latinx diaspora. As I emerged into my adult life, I found mentors and collaborators that affirmed these essential parts of myself, and I find more and more thought partners in these circles.  The pivotal formation in spaces outside of classical training and concert dance has allowed me to ground myself in ways that honor and complete who I am at the core. And this self-work in community allows me to show up for moving conversations forward around multiculturalism, activism, faith, and community-based praxis.

It was through deep listening in other formative spaces that I have been able to do recovery work that has bolstered my own sense of identity.  This has also allowed me to emerge as a thought partner/co-thinker in the creative community by allowing me to both participate in and inform wider conversations around cultural innovation and local movements.  

All over the theater community in Philadelphia, there is a growing dialogue around inclusion, representation, and equity across process and production. In the conversations I have participated in as of late, I am keenly aware of the invaluable role of multiculturalism in the creative and community spaces I inhabit, and the ways inclusion and representation shows up in visioning conversations I am a part of.

Are these same conversations happening as frequently in educational settings for high schoolers? According to Hanover research analysis, the first tier of critical 21st century skills for the classroom are identified as:

  • Collaboration and teamwork

  • Creativity and imagination

  • Critical thinking

  • Problem solving

While the second tier identified as:

  • Flexibility and adaptability

  • Global and cultural awareness

  • Information literacy

  • Leadership

For educators and administrators committed to effective 21st century learning, I contend that global and cultural awareness of self and community captures the first tier in an experiential, embodied way, and that multiculturalism is essential to 21st century learning skills.

Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and 19th century ballet are all great, but I feel alive inside and fully in touch with my artistry and personhood when I learn about the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, Dolores Huerta, Celia Cruz, and contemporary artists like Ricardo Levins Morales, Michelle Ortiz, Erika Nuñez, Las Cafeteras, and more.

Let’s imagine, design, and implement arts training that gives black and brown stories a place of prominence, not a checked “diversity” box. Let’s center the legacy of Latinx, African, and Asian diasporas and talk about the relevance of these legacies today. Eurocentric dance forms have been privileged long enough-let’s treat a West African, capoeira, and/or bachata class with the same seriousness that institutions treat their ballet training.

Let’s put priority on responsibly teaching multiculturalism, and equip students with the tools for putting cross-cultural empathy in practice. I believe this is what 21st century education in an arts setting should look like. I know how meaningful my own cultural recovery work has been and I am committed to advocating for this in today’s youth artists as well.