Grrl Brigade. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

As you exit the BART station at 24th & Mission, you may faintly hear a few musical notes spilling out of a cozy dance studio on the corner. On a recent weekday, an adult hip-hop class with instructor Micaya is just getting started. Rihanna blasts from the speakers as a big room full of students warm-up, gently stretching their limbs. Micaya wears a hoodie with the words “Water is Life” inked on the front. She has curly hair and checkered vans. Her energy is contagious.

Micaya begins introducing the moves the students will be learning today, cautioning them that technicality isn’t the point.

“I want you to learn the flavor of the dance, not the moves,” she says. Hip-hop is about how you do what you do. It’s about muscle memory and breathing, and really listening to the music. 

When her students falter, she reminds them that’s okay.

“It’s not like young people make it seem on Instagram,” she says wryly. “You don’t have the master the routine in one class. I know this is tricky. You’re doing a great job.”

Dance Mission, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the neighborhood this month at a gala performance at Herbst Theater on Friday, November 8, has been offering classes to thousands of students like these over the years – without ever turning anyone away for lack of funds. In a city and neighborhood with a housing crisis, late-stage gentrification, and skyrocketing rental costs, this creative organization’s survival is notable. 

Managing director, Stella Adelman, who has been dancing and working with the organization since she was in middle school, says Dance Mission’s success can be credited to rent control, which all of their core staff members happen to have.

“That’s the trickle-down,” Adelman explained, her colorful earrings twinkling in the sunlight spilling into the small office she shares with a few other few employees. “Because our rent is low, we are willing to be paid less. Which means we can keep our doors open while staying true to our mission.” 

To Dance Mission’s benefit, local lawmakers seem recently committed to rent control as an answer for a housing crisis that has had solutions in seemingly short supply. Last year, voters overwhelmingly defeated a ballot initiative that would have expanded rent control. But earlier this month, Governor Newsom signed AB1482 into effect, imposing a first-ever statewide cap on rent increases. This move represents a changing political landscape – and a beacon of hope for local artists and nonprofits like Dance Mission. 

“I hope people realize that rent control is subsidizing these kinds of arts organizations and other nonprofits,” Adelman says.

Despite low salaries, staff turnover at Dance Mission is quite low. This is true in part because there’s a strong, palpable sense of community and collaboration. “What makes Dance Mission work is everyone is so dedicated to it,” she explains. “We’re kind of all in this together.”

Plus, the walls at Dance Mission are thin. “This is a very poetic metaphor for the kind of things that happen here,” Adelman says. “The cross-pollination.”

Adelman, who wears many hats –  she runs the theater, writes grants, changes lightbulbs – was born down the street at SF General Hospital, and grew up in the Mission. When she was in elementary school, she would sit on the bleachers, watching while her mom partook in a Haitian dance class. One day, she was tired of watching, and so she started dancing.

“And I was super shy, which shows just how intoxicating the music was, and the drums were,” Adelman says, smiling. She’s been dancing ever since. 

Stella Adelman looks out from Mission Dance Theatre. Photo by Erica Marquez.

The stated mission of Dance Mission is to create art with a conscience; that educates, inspires, informs. The organization is also dedicated to making space for people who might otherwise not be able to afford to take dance classes. In January, the group will be premiering a dance called “Butterfly Effect,” which is all about climate change. 

Recently, the organization has partnered with another local nonprofit Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) to find what Adelman describes as a “forever home” down the street, on Mission & 18th. The new space will be bigger, better and cheaper than the current location. 

The details of the new space, including information about how members of the public can chip in, will be announced November 8 at ¡Adelante!, Dance Mission’s 20th-anniversary show and celebration. “As we look back at the last 20 years, we’ll also look forward, at everything that lies ahead,” Adelman says of the event.

(The performance is one-night-only, on Friday, November 8. You can read more about the event and buy tickets here or at the door.)

It is nearing the end of Micaya’s hour-long dance class, and her students seem sweaty, happy. For an hour, they have forgotten to worry about what anyone thinks and to just move their bodies to the rhythm of the music, in time with each other. Their teacher is proud of them for showing up, for being present.

“Never think you have to know how to dance to show up at a dance class,” she assures them, smiling. “Life is complicated. My dance class is not.” 

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