By JULIA IRWIN
“I taught my very first dance class half a block away, at the Japanese Community Center, when I was still in college,” says Corinne Nagata, owner of Nagata Dance, a second-floor studio in Japantown with a bird’s eye view of the Peace Plaza pagoda. “And my grandfather had a frame shop about five blocks away on Fillmore Street. He’s 103 now — incredibly witty and somebody who’s influenced me a lot. He was actually my landlord’s Boy Scout leader.”
Nagata, a San Francisco native, says she “went away to New York and did all the dance stuff there,” including stints at Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre, the National Dance Institute and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“But I came back here because it’s my hometown and my family is here. It’s nice to be back in this neighborhood again,” she says. “I also came back to make my home a better place and I think the way I can do that is by teaching dance — and not just teaching it, but sharing it with more people.”
After returning to San Francisco, the prodigal dancer and teacher started a dance camp, operating from makeshift sites around the city: a church basement, a community center, a school, a synagogue. Last summer, she opened the doors to Nagata Dance at 1740 Buchanan.
“I was so relieved I didn’t have to find any more spaces,” she says. “This is our home and it’s going to be our home forever and ever.”
While Nagata Dance offers some classes for adults, including the Horton technique, a specialized form of modern dance, the focus is on teaching children.
“I like teaching their little brains that are so like sponges that they just want to soak up the information,” Nagata says. “I teach in a very structured and very fun way — and through that way of teaching, they learn a tremendous amount.”
Nagata is glad to be ensconced again among familiar faces and places, and proud of her slick but homey new studio — especially the state-of-the-art floors, composed of 11 layers to cushion leaping dancers.
“Most dance floors are not so great on the body,” she says. “But this is amazing.”
Less directly, Nagata also attends to the aspiring dancers by helping to calm their jitters and performance anxieties.
“This is our Hall of Fame,” she says, pointing to a back stairwell near the side of the dance stage hung with inspiring messages and photos. “While the kids are so nervous, waiting to perform, we have them sit here and they do a little artwork and start to say things like ‘I love dancing!’ and ‘Dancing is my favorite thing!’ Just little messages about how dance makes them feel, or things that will make people feel happy.”
At Nagata Dance, students learn not only to dance, but also to perform — to share their excitement about their newfound skills and show them off to the community.
Each week of summer dance camp, which runs for seven weeks beginning in mid-June, the students and teachers concentrate on a different theme. During Let’s Moonwalk week, for example, they dance to Michael Jackson tunes all week and work at mastering his iconic moonwalk move.
Another week is dubbed Yoga and Funky Monkey. “I love yoga and kids love yoga, too — when it’s taught right,” Nagata says.
Every Friday, dance campers spend the day sharing their new moves. They first perform, flash mob style, in the open-air Buchanan Street mall then beside the pagoda in Peace Plaza before heading up to Bush Street to Kokoro, the senior complex. Finally, they perform for parents and friends in the studio.
“We don’t just dance secluded in a studio. We use dance as a tool to build community. That’s really important to me,” Nagata says.
She also strives to share dance with students who can’t afford classes, through a scholarship program called the Celebration Team.
“We bring children from poor schools into the space and they get to dance for free,” says Nagata. “We’ve volunteered over 100 hours to this program. I love that! I wish I had the opportunity to be five years old and be able to dance for free.”
Nagata also teaches free classes on-site at schools around the Bay Area. For teacher Brenda Wong, this outreach approach to dance is a novel one.
“I’ve never worked outreach dance before and Corinne is big with outreach,” Wong says. “She tries to bring movement to as many people as she can. I’ve strictly been in a studio where the kids come to you, so this is a new experience. We go to the kids and we teach them in their space. I like that. It’s different. It’s exciting.”
Wong, who has 10 years of teaching experience, especially recalls her first experience with Nagata, teaching a hip-hop class to children barely more than toddlers.
“These kids were doing things that I’ve never seen 4- and 5-year-olds do before — more intricate, complex dance moves,” Wong says. “And I was really impressed by that.”
Nagata Dance recently volunteered to conduct dance classes at a school in Chinatown, where most students had recently immigrated and spoke little English.
“These kids had never danced before,” Wong says. “And so to see the joy on their faces, it’s just great. It’s what it’s all about.”
Joy takes center stage at Nagata Dance, where classes are offered in everything from ballet and jazz to hip-hop and yoga. Children of different ages all get a chance to dance together. The emphasis is on collaboration, not competition.
“It’s a lot more family friendly, and a lot less competitive,” says Kate Leidlein, 13, who was a counselor at dance camp this summer. “Other studios I’ve been to were very focused on competition. Ms. Nagata doesn’t do that. It’s just super fun. Kids just enjoy it.”
It may be fun, but experienced teachers make dance class a serious learning experience as well. For 11-year-old Nathalie Fiszman, a dance camper for the third year in a row, it’s the quality teaching that makes Nagata Dance stand out.
“I learned how to dance a lot better,” Fiszman says. “Ms. Nagata taught me how to use my mind more. She taught me that you can be really, really stiff or really, really floppy. She made sure that we were okay with the dance that we were doing, and that we were caught up. And I think that makes it pretty special.”
She adds: “And I think she picked a really good spot for the studio. The community’s really nice and they really respect us when we’re dancing.”
For founder Corinne Nagata, it’s the idea of community that matters most.
“I would like the community to recognize Nagata Dance as a heartfelt place with quality dance — and a company that’s trying to do more than just dance,” she says. “I don’t think we’re going to change the world, but I do think that dance has tremendous power to bring people together.”
Filed under: Body & Soul