Dance the Bay: Uplifting Community Through Dance

August 13, 2018

Elissa Lee, 24, spent her childhood in Austin, Texas, her adolescence in Taiwan, and her college years at UC Berkeley. She has founded initiatives around storytelling and mental health and arts education. Previously, she worked at Too Small to Fail, coordinating a national campaign to promote the importance of early brain and language development in children. Elissa currently resides in sunny LA, pursuing a degree in occupational therapy and researching chronic conditions in medically underserved populations. She is passionate about increasing access to healthcare systems and creating a kinder world through the written word.

I have always had a love-hate relationship with dance.

As a child, I had the privilege of taking ballet lessons in a studio, but it always felt a little selfish in the spotlight. My parents paid for my lessons, for ballet shoes and leotards; they paid for my dance recitals and for flowers to bring to each recital. So when dance cut into time caregiving for my grandmother, I leaped at the opportunity to quit, retired my pointe shoes at 14, and got on the train to see Nai-Nai.

It wasn’t until I moved back to the U.S. for college when I rediscovered my passion for dance, but it had taken a different form. Founding an organization called Dance the Bay helped me shift my dance background into something positive, into a place that used dance as a way of bringing people together.

(Courtesy of Gloria Liang)

At Dance the Bay, our mission is to uplift community through dance. We share this notion that dance, as Alvin Ailey once said, “came from the people and always should be given back to the people.” Everyone has their own movement. Through Dance the Bay, we hope to honor that movement and create a space for people to express themselves creatively through dance. It’s a dance that gets people to communicate with one another, that teaches life lessons, that gets everyone moving – it’s a dance that reflects how we want life to be.

(Courtesy of Lenell Ordanza)

Through our partnerships, we provide dance programs to preschool and afterschool programs, nursing homes and senior affordable housing, homeless shelters and women’s groups, the campus community and on recital stages. Through this work, I have seen the power of dance in transforming a shy kindergartener into a confident performer, her pigtails swinging as she twirled confidently front and center at the annual showcase; a senior, no longer able to speak, shuffle his feet to the music, holding hands with his daughter; tears running down a woman’s face as we led movement meditation, in the thread of finding peace within yourself.

Dance the Bay, currently led by Executive Directors Alison Tanubrata and Alli Green, is reaching its five-year mark.

“I joined Dance the Bay because I was interested in giving back to the dance community,” Alison said. “I’ve danced ballet for more than 10 years, and I’m lucky to be able to afford studio classes. I began to think about how much dance has shaped my life, and I wanted to give others better access to dance classes. Through Dance the Bay’s outreach, I’ve been able to see all kinds of people benefit from dance.”

In April, the organization had their annual showcase, where students from the Youth Program performed for their parents, teachers, and peers.  

“The showcase is always a celebratory point in the semester,” said Maisha Kabir, former artistic director of Dance the Bay. “It’s wonderful seeing the kids and volunteers share what they have worked so hard on.”

With a grant from the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund, Dance the Bay was able to undergo dance education, leadership, and strategic planning with Luna Dance Institute. Luna, a nationally-acclaimed dance education nonprofit, has many programs to reach its vision to bring creativity, equity, and community to every child’s life — one of which is Professional Learning.

“We try to bring in a creative aspect, to help the teachers find places where the students can have more of a voice, nurturing the child to find what they have to bring to the dance as well,”  said Cherie Hill, teaching artist and communications manager at Luna.

With the hard work of these passionate, incredible students as well as the guidance and support from Luna, Dance the Bay has grown these last five years.

“I used to think I could never be a good leader,” Alison said. “But leading Dance the Bay has proved me wrong and taught me to trust myself and to never stop reaching for my goals. I’m so grateful for the opportunities Dance the Bay has offered me and proud of all the progress we’ve made.”

Maisha concurs, “Through Dance the Bay, I grew as a leader and found a community I could call my own.”

Outside of Dance the Bay and Luna, there are many more nonprofit organizations out there that empower social change through dance. Here are a few based in the Bay Area, that I have had the privilege of knowing and/or working with:

  • Dancin Power, founded by Vania Deonizio, teaches adapted dance lessons to children in hospitals to reduce the negative impact of hospital stays on health, self-esteem, and emotional well-being. Dancin Power enhances patients’ quality of life by creating an outlet for them and their families to express their emotions, move their bodies, give them a sense of self, provide normalcy, and help them feel uplifted.
  • Dance for Parkinson’s Disease, originally a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, is now an international program teaching dance to people affected by Parkinson’s Disease that spans more than 250 communities in 24 countries.
  • Axis Dance Company is an integrated ensemble of dancers with and without physical disabilities. They redefine dance and ability not only through their breathtaking performances, but also by reaching out to youth through in-school residencies, interactive performance assemblies in schools, and teacher trainings.
  • Mini Mix’d, led by Jenay Anolin, is a group of girls who engage in building community through Hip Hop/Club movement, music, culture, and performance.

For more information about Dance the Bay, please visit