In her dance class, Nicole Robinson shouts out life lessons nearly as often as she counts out rhythms.
“We need to be plastic, we need to be flexible, it’s just like your regular life – things change,” she told the two dozen students in her intro dance class at Fontana A.B. Miller High School.
“I would love it if I knew exactly what my life was going to be every morning when I got up," she said. "Things happen all day and I have to be flexible.”
As the ninth-graders go over the routine for an upcoming performance, she jotted down detailed critiques on a notepad. With their reflections in the rehearsal mirrors as the only audience, Robinson pushes them to deliver like they’re on stage, driving home the powerful message of the routine.
"Right now what you’re communicating to me is a bit of insecurity," she said. "So I want you to shake all that off. You’re not you when you’re on stage, we understand that, right? You’re a character.”
An Inland Empire native, she started working at A.B. Miller just a few months after graduating from California State University, San Bernardino.
“I thought I’d just be here for a little bit and then move onto something else,” she laughed. “Twenty-one years later, not so much.”
She hasn’t just stayed – Robinson has ignited a love for dance at the high school that has led directly to an expansion of the art form in schools across the Fontana Unified School District.
'How can I give them more?'
Robinson, like many dance teachers in the state, was originally hired as P.E. teacher who could also teach dance and coach the cheerleaders. California is one of two states in the country that doesn’t offer teaching credentials for dance (or theater), though a bill to restore them passed through the legislature last year. In absence of single-subject credentials, dance teachers are currently required to obtain a license in physical education.
Robinson wanted to take her program to another level and provide more for the students out in an area removed from the region's performing arts hubs and magnet programs, and where most families can’t afford private lessons.
“These kids have nothing and we're just gonna go in and give them a little bit? No, that shouldn't be the approach!" Robinson said. “The approach [should be] to give them absolutely everything that you have, because this might be the only chance that they have.”
Today, the school offers four levels of dance and 175 students take the classes five days a week, for the whole school year. In 2009, Robinson founded a dance conservatory, where advanced students spend part of the school day studying ballet, jazz, modern, learning about choreography and more.
“Fontana’s not the mecca of dance, by no means,” said A.B. Miller principal Moises Merlos. “There’s very few opportunities for our kids and that’s really [true for] the whole Inland Empire. So having a program like this really is a benefit to the community.”
Merlos called Robinson one of the best teachers he’s ever seen.
“Because she runs such a good program, not only does she work with kids who want to be artists," he said, "she also draws kids who want to be part of something that’s really good.”
Dance education is an art form that is usually among the hardest to access in public schools. Only 2 percent of secondary students in California are enrolled in school dance classes, according to a state database. Robinson – also the president-elect of the California Dance Education Association – says the guiding question behind her work is: "How can give them more? That's always the question that I'm asking myself."
That attitude has become contagious.
A few years back, Robinson came to her most advanced dance students, looking for ideas for a grant proposal. "They all said, “Hey,’ We didn’t get dance before we came here,’ ” Robinson recalled. “ ‘How can we address that need?’ “
Carla Camberos was one of those students. She graduated from A.B. Miller last year, and now she's incorporating dance into her kinesiology major at Cal State, San Bernardino.
"It's pretty cool," she said. "[Dance is] such a big part of our lives now through this program that it's like, OK, I have to keep doing something with it to keep myself happy and sane."
She'd never taken formal dance lessons as a child. Her parents couldn't afford them. After a couple years of training with Robinson, she auditioned and was accepted into the school’s conservatory, a program Robinson started for the most talented students.
"I just think that having that publicly available for people who don’t have the funds for it," Camberos said, "opens you up to a whole other world that you didn’t even know existed."
Building a dance collaborative
Taking the suggestion of her students to heart, Robinson secured a $20,000 grant from the California Teacher’s Association’s Institute for Teaching, to support dance classes for fourth and fifth graders at a nearby elementary school.
After a year, the district stepped in to fund and expand the program.
"And that is exactly what we wanted, that's exactly why we did it,” said Robinson, “to say, 'Hey, it doesn't take a lot to bring dance into schools, you just have to be willing to try it.’ "
Now, at Juniper Elementary, the program – known as the Dance Collaborative – supports dance classes for all 600 students, grades K through five, once a week. It also funds professional development for classroom teachers at the school.
“I’ll be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t have explored this opportunity if it hadn’t been for Nicole,” said principal Tammy Fleming, who says the program has changed the culture of the school.
“She was able to generate enough enthusiasm to hook us all. And so when the opportunity presented itself it wasn’t about should I? It was why shouldn’t I?”
Ever humble, Robinson is hesitant to take credit for the expansion. She almost always says “we” when talking about any effort that she'd helmed.
“I know that people are like, ‘You’re the program!’ but it really is a community of people who are coming together to make this work," said Robinson, laughing. "And yes it was my idea, but if the community doesn’t do it, then nothing gets done.' ”
The community is now in lock step with her vision. Dance classes started for fourth and fifth graders at Locust Elementary this year, and Wayne Ruble Middle School hopes to start classes in the fall.