Jessi Pontillas | November 2017

Hometown: Huntington Beach, California

Major: Dance

Minor: Visual and Performing Arts Education


Q: How did you discover your interest in the arts and how did you know that it was something that you wanted to pursue professionally, as an artist or as an artist teacher?

A: As a child, it was really hard for me to sit down and stay still; all I wanted to do was twirl down the grocery store aisles and mimic the home videos of my mom and her sisters dancing. I grew up in a very arts-influenced environment; my lola (grandma) has the most beautiful singing voice, both of my parents danced when they were younger, and you couldn’t eat at family parties until you performed a sample of your artistic abilities. Pilipinx culture place strong values on music and dance, and that was definitely evident in my family. Dance for me became a method of creative expression that connected me with my Pilipinx heritage and my life in America at the same time. From a young age, I always knew dance was something I wanted to have for the rest of my life. I didn’t care how or what exactly I was going to do, but I knew that I needed dance to be woven throughout my life.

Q: Describe what the young artists in your VAPAE afterschool arts program are working on and the process they’re using.

A: Currently, I co-teach with Ria Julian in kickstarting the Dance at Emerson Middle School program, and right now we’re working towards our final performance and project for the session. While learning about Hip Hop dance history and its cultural significance, they’ve also began developing freestyle and choreographic skills in dance. We’ve created a dance routine that will be documented through both video/film and a physical showcase, allowing them to apply the skills they’ve acquired through the program.

Q: Why is an enrichment opportunity like this important for those participating? What do they gain?

A: This opportunity is so important because it gives them another way to free their own personal voice. Some students just express themselves better through physical movement than in writing or speaking, so it allows them to comfortably communicate their thoughts. For those who are less comfortable with dancing, it challenges them to take risks and make decisions. The dance studio is a safe space, a close-knit family, a center for healing. It provides them with a safe environment that is there for them every Tuesday after school, giving them a constant art-making place amidst whatever they have going on.

Q: Did you have an opportunity like this when you were a younger artist? If yes, how did it help shape your love of art? If no, in what ways could a program like this have helped you?

A: I was fortunate enough to begin my dance training in a private dance studio, but an opportunity similar to Dance @ Emerson would have been my high school. I attended the Orange County High School of the Arts, where I auditioned to have dance apart of my everyday school schedule after my academic classes were done. The environment gave me a constant place to express myself, and if I needed somewhere to let out whatever was bothering me, I knew that I could do so in one of the dance studios or during one of my dance classes.

Q: What has this experience as a teaching artist or arts facilitator taught you about yourself?

A:  I’ve learned a lot about the teacher side of me. What works, what doesn’t, what I can improve on in the classroom. I’ve also learned how much I enjoy co-teaching! Dance @ Emerson is the first time I’ve been given the chance to co-teach, and I’m enjoying to collaborative process to build the program. However, this experience has primarily taught me what kind of role model I am and want to be for my students. I crave personal connections with my students, and the past months I’ve been able to build bridges with my students to the point where they feel comfortable coming to me about anything. To be trusted with whatever they choose to tell me is truly an honor.

Q: What do you personally gain as a teaching artist, arts facilitator?

A: Growth. Connections with students, colleagues, people. Passing down knowledge to the next generation of artists. A sense of pride in the quality of my students’ work.

Q: What are the benefits to you as a student/graduate in the UCLA VAPAE program? Was this program a good choice for you? If so, why?

A: I recently graduated this past June from the VAPAE program, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. While I have experience of teaching dance in a studio setting from high school, VAPAE provided me with so many more tools and techniques to adapt my teaching methods to the school classroom. I absolutely loved the fact that we didn’t simply just learn about how to teach, but were also able to apply what we learned in our Teaching Sequences. Hands-on learning and experiences are the best way for me to learn, so it was so great to put my skills to the test.

Q: Are there any anecdotes from your VAPAE Studio Sessions (or Arts Education Teaching Sequence) that stand out to you? Perhaps you had a break‐through with a student or saw some particularly noticeable growth in that student through this program, collaboration etc. Maybe something surprised you or made you think about art or teaching in a new way.

A: For me, my favorite anecdote from Dance at Emerson was seeing the way our students grew comfortable with us. Connections with my students is important to me, so being able to forge these relationships with our students in such a short time was inspiring and rewarding. At the end of each class, Ria and I try to spend a few minutes facilitating a freestyle dance circle, or a cypher, with our students. One of my students had expressed that she was extremely shy about dancing in front of others and that she was worried about what they would say. However as the session continued, I saw her grow and break more out of her shell. This same student was the first student to step into the cypher, and it was amazing to see her flourish and enjoy herself when just a month ago, she never wanted to freestyle in front of her peers.

Q: What are your short-term and long‐term career goals?

A: Short term, I’m focusing on teaching and dancing professionally in Los Angeles. I want to set a foundation for myself and become the best teacher I can be for my students at each of the schools I teach at. Long term, I’ll be returning to graduate school (sometime in the next 5 years, hopefully!) to complete coursework in dance/arts therapy. Once I earn my Masters and licensing, I want to open my own arts therapy practice in Southern California with my siblings.