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A Baltimore Transplant's Vision for Atlanta School for the Arts

On any given day as a faculty member of Spelman College’s Department of Dance Performance & Choreography, I might be moving and sweating with my students as we propel ourselves across the dance floor, or sitting in a circle discussing the role of black women’s embodiment in civic engagement and social justice movements, facilitating critical reflection as students craft and analyze choreographic works, or brainstorming with my colleagues about innovating new courses and public dance programming.

This is my dream job.

I get to be part of a team that helps students understand dance as a mode of research, a rigorous artistic medium, a tool for change. I sometimes wonder in awe about how I got here, how did I get so lucky? As I dig through the mental crates of childhood memories, I realize that me and dance go way back.

I am often regaled with stories of how my parents would place me on the floor as a baby, and within seconds I would roll, crawl, or climb my way into corners of the room seemingly impossible to reach by most normal humans. In kindergarten, when asked about my day, my response would always involve a lively improvised score involving kicks, twirls, and jumps. “Today we talked about the color blue [jump!]. My teacher wore a skirt [kick, roll!] with lots of flowers [twirl!] all over it. I got a sticker [hop hop hop!] because I did a good job [drop and freeze!]”

My mother enrolled me and my sister in dance and music classes right away. She instilled in us the belief in the arts as integral to learning, to affirming and expressing our existence in this world, and to carrying out meaningful conversations as a way to share our human experiences. So, before I even began primary school, I was introduced to the idea that dance could be a way of being in the world, and sharing that state of being with others.

By the age of 13, I was a voracious dance student. I already had 10 years of training through after school classes a couple times a week, and I couldn’t get enough. My dance studio teachers urged me to attend a school where I could immerse myself in dance and make it part of my everyday learning process. At the Baltimore School for the Arts, I got just what I needed. Being among like-minded peers meant I didn’t feel ‘othered’ for my artistic inclinations. It meant that my compulsion for movement was honored and understood as a way of being in the world. This was liberating! Attending a school for the arts exposed me to dance genres, techniques, theories, artists and companies that were new to me. As an experiential learner, it meant that I could immerse myself in an academic environment that promoted embodied knowing, learning by doing, connecting action to critical thinking, all within the structure of my high school education. I spent hours upon hours in the studio and the classroom, on the stage and in the books. Though my adolescent self may not have realized it then, I learned to eradicate the preconceived boundaries of ‘artist’ and ‘thinker.’ I poured myself into the work of a future dancer-scholar, an aspiring professional artist. My experience at a school for the arts led me to undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral studies in dance, and a multitude of opportunities that ultimately helped me craft a multi-faceted career as a performer, choreographer, researcher, editor, educator, and director.

So when I think about how lucky I am to do what I love, I remember… I worked really, really, hard for this. The luck was that I had people around me who watched me [kick! roll! jump!] and didn’t say “sit still!” Instead, they said, “go dance!” I got the support I needed to follow my passions, develop a strong work ethic, hone my craft, and connect to the people, resources, and skills I would need to be successful. This is what a high school for the arts did for me, and what I know the Atlanta School for the Arts can do for our children here.

So, let’s build our dream school.

Atlanta is one of the few major cities in the U.S. without a high school for the arts, and so we have a tremendous opportunity to create something incredible with our communities. I am honored to be part of the Atlanta School for the Arts founding team, a group of professional artists, administrators, educators, and leaders who have come together to set the wheels in motion, compelled by the possibilities. In a city that is so artistically and culturally vibrant that its influence can be felt across the nation — through dance, music, visual art, drama, media, and more — we are uniquely positioned to bridge our artistic landscape to a comprehensive academic curriculum. Partnering with a local public school district, like Atlanta Public Schools, means we can provide our students with the Georgia state 9-12th grade academic requirements, without the barriers created by income, academic record, or previous experience in arts training. Partnering with professional artists means we can provide our students with rigorous, dynamic, and nurturing arts education, that centers the makers, doers, creators - those students who understand the world through their art. Atlanta School for the Arts will affirm for our students that they, too, can work really, really, hard for their dream job… and be lucky enough to have a place that support them doing what they love the most.

Dr. Johnson and former BSFA classmates turned ATLiens

- Dr. Julie B. Johnson

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