Making Dance Visible: Prioritizing Place for Public Performance in Oakland

by Eboni Senai Hawkins

“Our communities need to see our artists doing their art.” ~ Senay Dennis (aka Refa 1)

As a transplant from New York (8 years and counting), I have come to expect the performing arts to take over the landscape during warm weather in major cities.  New York sets the bar with Summer Stage across 5 boroughs.  L.A. organizes Grand Performances in spite of its urban sprawl. Chicago, with only 2.5 real warm months, has a jam-packed schedule at Millenium Park.  San Francisco’s approach is a little disjointed but at least the effort is there: Stern Grove and Outside Lands fill a niche. And in SF, when all else fails, there’s always someone performing at BART & MUNI’s busiest stations.

So what’s going on in Oakland?

Oakland is home to some 90 parks, (compare that to Brooklyn’s 39).  With so much public space, why are we only graced with two days for the Art and Soul Festival, four days of Sundays in the Redwoods, and a smattering of lunchtime performances as part of Sweet Summer Sounds?  In the debate around encouraging arts appreciation in youth, why are we not making it simple, direct, and affordable?  While we’re at it, why not change the focus in favor of involving whole families through a dynamic network of outdoor, neighborhood-based performances that span the range from music to dance to theater?

Outdoor performances (usually) = free performances.

The economics don’t add up. Nor should they, according to Arlene Goldbard’s urging that we “start with open eyes: refuse to pretend this debate is about money; explain how the arts are being used to send a political message.”  Oakland’s political message is a charged one that mimics the overall United States emphasis to exercise control and boundaries rather than encouraging diverse communities to connect around public performance.  What if, post-Mesherle verdict, the City of Oakland spent less on overtime for law enforcement officials and invited Turf Feinz and Youth Uprising to engage the public in a dance demonstration at Frank Ogawa Plaza?

What if Oakland committed to outdoor performances as much as is its highly-publicized restoration projects?  CBS Outdoor contributed $6.5 million in billboard revenue so that Oakland School of the Arts could pre-pay its first seven years of rent to the Fox Theater.  What if the City negotiated with CBS Outdoor to use a portion of the billboard’s continued revenue to support site-specific performance activating the Uptown Sculpture Garden?

In the midst of the furor around Mayor Quan’s most recent push to cut Oakland’s arts funding, we also need to look at our neighbors’ understanding of “the arts”.

I would bet that the majority of Oakland-ers, like the majority of Americans, don’t define themselves as artists or see “the arts” as vital to their lives.  Even in the Bay Area, where we are supposedly so culturally-literate, I listen closely to the subtext when young second-generation business owners think artists are people who just want to “live off society” and graduates of Berkeley High are instantly cynical when a new acquaintance describes herself as “an artist.”  What if Oakland’s residents, encouraged by the presence of dance and music almost in their backyards, became more active cultural stewards, showing just as much enthusiasm for new bars and restaurants as the performance-packed but seemingly one-off Uptown Unveiled?

Performance artist, Adesola Akinleye, discussing the overlapping elements of bodies and buildings, writes:

“… The person who watches dancing does none of the physical work themselves but in perceiving the performance they experience the rhythm of it as though it were in their own body…  I see choreography working in such a way that the audience becomes aware of their own feeling of the aesthetic of the body in space.  I aim for my work to continue to be alive within the space when the dancing bodies have finished; for the dance to have left a trace.”

Dance demands a kinesthetic empathy, a way of experiencing art bodily simply by watching.  Another video featuring Turf Feinz is “RIP Rich D”.  The intense and simple beauty of humans finding an outlet for mourning through movement has accumulated over 2.5 million views on YouTube.  Such empathy has the potential to pierce the layers of urban existence and bring together Oakland’s diverse yet self-segregated neighborhoods.  Especially if we commit to it in public.



Eboni Senai Hawkins is the Producing Artistic Director of see. think. dance.
After valuable experiences in arts administration (Jacob’s Pillow Dance, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet), she took a leap of faith and started working directly with the art and artists she loved.

Inspired by the opportunity to present intimate performance in a low-pressure environment, Eboni curated a short program for the June 2007 Mission Arts Performance Project (MAPP) hosted by the Red Poppy Art House, featuring dancers Antoine Hunter and Rashad Pridgen.

The response from the primarily visual arts/music audience was overwhelming and in collaboration with Todd Brown and the Red Poppy’s Street-Level Curating Program, Eboni established see. think. dance. to produceTruth + Beauty (November 2007), Word. Warrior. Music. Movement. (March 2008), and Urban Art Sessions(May 2008).

May 2008 also marked the formation of and the first performative installment by The Intimacy Project, an ongoing collaboration between artists/educators who draw creative inspiration from their connection to the African continent and are deeply invested in social change through the re-integration of the mind and the body.  Losing a dancer at the last moment and concerned with the flow of the evening’s program, Eboni overcame her fear of the stage to perform a duet with actor Kwesi Hutchful, a movement composition incorporating media installation, tempest tossed by lauren woods and layered with a recorded version of Intro to Kemetic Science by David Boyce.

In 2010, heavily influenced by the REVIVE workshop, Eboni created the annual REflect film series as part of the Black Choreographers’ Festival: Here and Now. Subtitled “The Black Dancing Body on Film”, REflect mines the rich visual history of Black dancers and choreographers on film through a dynamic selection of documentaries, feature films, and shorts.


Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)
on Saturday, April 16! Register here.

13 replies
  1. Kristi Holohan
    Kristi Holohan says:

    I'm getting down, and yes, the institutions don't always highlight the AMAZING happenings in Oakland but it doesn't mean that they aren't happening.

    I do see so much going! In my view, and yours so eloquently stated, the Institution is not always on the pulse of , the vast talent of Oakland, and its priorities are not always in the right place. If one's ever tried to create a public community Arts event it can become a monster of volunteer time with little support from the already underfunded and institutionally centered Public Arts Program. It doesn't mean that these things aren't happening! There are many groups working, and often not highlighted in media to showcase Arts and Culture to every corner of Oakland, there's just no cross-cultural, cross-socioeconomic, directory for what's happening.

    Thanks for your post and insight!

    • Eboni Senai Hawkins
      Eboni Senai Hawkins says:

      Thank you for this.
      Can you share with me your favorite places to look for performing arts in public spaces?
      I try to be hyper-aware (it informs my practice as a curator) but I know there’s a lot I could miss simply because of geogeography (where life leads me on any given day).

      • Kristi Holohan
        Kristi Holohan says:

        Destiny Arts, East Side Arts Alliance (although not public but a non-profit and open to the public), Malonga Arts Center, Studio One Arts Center, Youth Uprising, Joaquin Miller Park (Summer Series), Dimond Park (Picnic in the Park), San Antonio Park, Mosswood Park (amphitheater), Allendale Rec (just had a turf battle), Carmen Flores Rec (Summer Fashion show in the works), DeFremery Park-I'll keep letting you know more as I come upon them. Although the promotion for these events isn't always great, they're happening!

  2. Lise
    Lise says:

    Hi –
    Love your point of view re arts as needing to be out there, accessible, and part of everyone's life all the time –
    I am the co-founder of a new non-profit based in NYC – Institute in the Service of Community Sustainability (ICSCS). Our website is (will be redesigned as soon as possible). would love to get in touch – one of our goals is to start connecting with people around the country who are re-thinking the way arts are presented and, present themselves…
    Looking forward to more communication!
    Lise Brenner

  3. Joaquin Newman
    Joaquin Newman says:

    Thank you, Eboni, for this vision for the future of Oakland Arts.
    As a community muralist and public artist involved with arts in Oakland, I could not agree more that our public resources and societal attention should be increasingly focused on the production and creation of public artworks, in the form of collaborative performances, community based participatory murals, and interactive displays of local talent.
    As many local businesses and artists have seen with regards to the Oakland Art Murmur (and sadly one-off Uptown Unveiled), outdoor art gatherings do increase the value of our public spaces, both financially and culturally. And as you observe, there are so many public spaces that could be graced with the unique talents of established, emerging and enthusiastic artists of Oakland, given the proper resources.
    I greatly appreciate the shifting of the discussion to one of broader social issues in light of our seemingly interminable wars around the world and nefarious political shift to union-busting, right-wing agendas. But I also embrace looking to local solutions to these often overwhelming problems such as impromptu art shows/events, guerrilla-theater, and community based collaborations in making public artworks.
    I hereby publicly commit to continue to “help bring together Oakland’s diverse yet self-segregated neighborhoods” through my own mural-based collaborations and by supporting local events, as well as looking for other future collaborations. Any other great ideas?
    If anyone is interested in checking out our recent projects, please visit

  4. Karen S
    Karen S says:


    what an eloquent, impassioned critique of the arts in oakland. i was tempted to point out the various outdoor events that i am aware of [that you don't mention] but realized that those events are beside the point. oakland's public spaces can, and should, be filled with artistic vibrations and grateful participants/consumers and not just in the summer months. oakland CAN commit as much energy and resources to the arts [and dare i say, arts education?] as they do to 'fighting crime' but we [artists and 'lay-people' alike] don't demand it. voices like yours should not be echoing from within an artistic and political vacuum. combined with parents, students [your anecdote made me shed tears. really.], educators, performers, workers and all of us who make up this illustrious town have to rise up and request that mayor quan make oakland a vibrant, cultured city. many thanks to you for beginning this discussion.

    • Eboni Senai Hawkins
      Eboni Senai Hawkins says:

      PLEASE do point out what I don’t mention. I’ll start a list! Maybe even a newsletter!

      Now, as much as I want Oakland to re-think its value systems and allocates resources, I also want Oakland citizens to feel empowered to affect change on a small scale.
      For those of us who have young people in our lives, the next time we go to a performance (indoor or out), why don’t we bring them along? And have them bring a friend?
      We all have neighbors. How often do we bring up arts happenings with passion? I would hope that the enthusiasm might become infectious.
      And how many people would be willing to open their homes to artists who need/want to perform? (See Philip Huang
      Or open up homes to visiting artists so that we can become a hub for cultural exchange? (See Portland State University’s Open Engagement Conference:

      Just a few thoughts.

  5. XJXJ
    XJXJ says:

    In the past two years, I've come to realize the extent of how the bureaucracy of local and regional governments pushes back at those who want to create these spaces you are talking about. It makes me appreciate why most artists choose to lay low and create public performance spaces guerrilla style. The red tape comes not only from a safety/policy centric view of public art and public gatherings, but from the local budget crisis and a litigious culture. None of this is insurmountable, and a concerted and direct effort from the Mayor Quan and others could do a lot. There are also huge divides and quite honestly, a lot of suspicion between arts communities based on varying political philosophies and allocation of scare resources. I think it's important to talk about these issues upfront and figure out how to move forward together. Thanks for beginning the conversation!

  6. liusan
    liusan says:

    Hi Eboni,

    Thanks for this post. As someone who has often approached arts and culture from a slightly "guerrilla" point of view, I appreciate your thoughts about the necessity for having arts out in public. For me, it is essential that the segregated and often privatized nature of art become public, whether sanctioned or through "reclamation" of public space.

    On another note, I think big picture-thinking cultural movements could contribute to connecting the disparate parts of Oakland's arts and the formation of a more general awareness and support for arts. Here's I'm thinking of the International Cities of Refuge Network (, which is a network of cities worldwide dedicated to protecting the freedom of expression of writers. I can imagine a grassroots effort to add Oakland to the network, and how the campaign process could generate all kinds of educational benefits.

    Maybe I'll write more about this in my final guest post.

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