There aren’t many things that could drive a person to leave the sun and warmth of Hawaii to sign up for a two week stay in Alaska in the dead of winter. Jocelyn Shiro found more than 260 good reasons in the students of West Homer Elementary School.
She got time off work in order take the trip and accept a spot as the school’s visiting teaching artist. A longtime dance teacher, Shiro was able to share her love of movement with the students through the Artists in Schools program, funded by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, part of the Alaska Department of Education.
Those who participate in residencies “should provide high quality arts experiences and training for students, teachers, and the greater community,” according to the Council on the Arts’ web page on the program.
Shiro, who raised a family in Homer before moving to Hawaii, worked with the students by holding five 1-hour sessions with each class. That’s all the practice they had before performing the fruits of their labor in front of their families during a recital held at the school Friday, Feb. 23. Before moving to Hawaii, Shiro had taught dance to adults and children for about 25 years. However, she said she took a break upon moving and only recently got back into teaching, so she was a bit nervous about jumping back in through her residency.
“My prep was physical prep, because in Hawaii I kind of got used to doing yoga, I became a yogi, and I swam because the water’s warm,” Shiro said. “And then when I accepted this residency I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to take off my mermaid tail and I’ve got to put on my legs.’”
She trained for five weeks to regain the strength and weight bearing abilities needed for dance, she said. While in Homer, Shiro taught the West Homer Elementary students about improvisation, floor work, jazz dance techniques, isolating their body movements and more.
Shiro said one can’t really train for the creative process, though, so she was hoping all her years of experience would come back to her. If cheers and applause from the audience during Friday’s recital were any indication, it worked.
“The first couple of days were a little sticky, but then it started flowing, and then it was fine,” she said.
Shiro has enjoyed teaching both children and adults over the years, but said kids bring their own special joy to dancing. They’re less weighed down with the responsibilities of being an adult, and they’re hungry to learn, she said.
When teaching children, especially boys, Shiro tends to use the word “movement” in place of “dance.” She said boys often have misconceptions about what dance can mean and what it will be like — i.e., feminine.
“What I tried to do with, like the Moana song, is explain that in Hawaii, a lot of huge Hawaiian men in huge groups dance together what’s called hula, but it’s based on … the whole warrior tradition,” she said. “So I tried to let them know that dance can also be very masculine and strong.”
An important part of the Artists in Schools program is not only bringing something to the students, but imparting some techniques or knowledge on the teachers as well. Shiro gave the West Homer Elementary teachers tips and techniques for incorporating movement into their daily classroom routines in order to help the students learn.
“The benefits are research shown that movement, and especially movement where you’re using opposite sides of the body at once simultaneously or crossing (the) midline, that stimulates cortical brain growth,” she said. “It also increases attention. … Research has shown that movement prior to learning increases … developmental reading skills, it quiets what I call the wigglies in kids, and it allows them to then sit because they get that energy out and they get oxygen pumping through their body.”
She encouraged the teachers to start their days with some kind of movement, from stretching to dancing, to help their students be more ready to settle into learning.
Asia Freeman, the artistic director at Bunnell Street Arts Center, runs the Artists in Schools program for the region. The program also receives funding from the Rasmuson Foundation, private donors and other entities.
“I feel blessed and honored to be asked to come back,” Shiro said of her two-week stay. “Because Homer … in my heart, it’s still my home, and I have so many loved ones here. I was so much a part of the community when I lived here that I really, really miss it. So, when I was asked to come back I just was thrilled.”