There is a small dance company in the city of Hartford, Connecticut that goes by the name of Spectrum in Motion, Dance Theater Ensemble. The company was founded in 1982 in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. What was once a small collegiate community dance project, Spectrum in Motion today operates as a non-profit dance studies organization designed to prioritize inner city youth and adult movers all across the greater Hartford area.
There are few groups of arts and theater-based community developers whose work to bring families together results in the students calling their teachers and leadership terms like “Lola,” “Lolo,” “Titi,” “Kuya,” or simply “Mom.” Excluding “Mother,” all these terms are Filipino words meaning “Grandmother,” “Grandfather,” “Auntie,” and “Uncle”—a culture not related to the larger student population, whatsoever! With the downtown Hartford student body being built up from students of 45.5% Hispanic, 34.1% Black American, and 14.7% White-Caucasian descent, this relatively unique culture from the Pacific Islands would have to be inserted into the community in some other way, or by someone else.
Now, the responsible thing to do is confess that I am—and have been, extremely biased towards the value of what this organization has accomplished over its lifetime as well as this company’s mission.
Olivia Sabulao Ilano-Davis, the founder and current Artistic Director of Spectrum in Motion, Dance Theater Ensemble has spent her life as a choreographer, an entrepreneur, a community leader, and an educator but for me, she will always be known as Mom—and in this case, she actually is.
Born in Manila, the Philippines, Olivia Davis immigrated as a child in the early 1970s to The Berkshires of Massachusetts. Born into a traditional Asian American household Olivia’s parents wanted their children to be committed to stable Western professions in the medical or engineering industries, but she grew up always dreaming of being a dancer. Like most children, her dreams were not quite focused yet, just big, beautiful, and bright! A performer? A choreographer? A company director? It was still too soon to tell, she just had to dance.
Following this passion, Olivia Davis went on to receive her BFA in Theater and Dance from Smith College. She continued her studies, discovered different dance techniques from around the world, and consumed herself with dance cultures by dancing with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, The Clarke Center for the Performing Arts, and Henry Street Settlement. In response to the January 1981 dismantling of American Affirmative Action Legislation, Olivia also began her teaching career as an instructor and presented a course entitled “Third World Dance Theater Workshop” at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
This was the birth of Spectrum in Motion, Dance Theater Ensemble, and the beginning of Olivia’s artistic exploration as a choreographer and leader. The project was composed of Olivia’s classmates, students from her masters classes, friends, and local community theater enthusiasts also located around The Five College Consortium. They say her class’s signature warm-ups also attracted seasonal athletes such as football players in the spring and baseball players in the fall.
Quite the vast array of backgrounds, personalities, and professions joining together for dance classes—especially during such an iconic time in American history’s efforts to try and develop ethnic equality. Early evidence that Olivia’s love for dance and innate talent for education just happened to bring anyone together.
Over time, teaching and education became a major inspiration for Olivia. However, even though Spectrum in Motion did have a close-knit family of committed dancers, a large part of the company was still built upon an ever-changing group of students and community participants. As a choreographer, Olivia was required to observe her students’ physical and mental attributes when teaching class in order to both improve their dance technique and simply make certain that her own choreography would be accessible movements for those learning from her. You can’t add a backflip to a dance piece if you don’t have anyone around who can do a backflip!
I can’t say when I started to notice, but it became clear to me that I had many more aunts and uncles than the norm. Many of them looked nothing like and lived nothing like the people in my household. But they all danced!
There are (in my opinion) too many stories about how I was an active baby always crawling around the floor during class warm-up, that I cried every time Mom had to put me down and make corrections, and that eventually I developed baby crushes on company members and danced with them on the side of the studio in between combinations. I was the company baby, and while I can’t claim to be the first baby of the Spectrum in Motion family, I am the baby that made the founder and creative leader start her own family.
In the year 2000, Olivia Davis became the Director of The Dance Program for City Youth with The Hartford Ballet. Her primary responsibilities included, but were not limited to, community outreach, where she would develop and manage relationships within the Hartford Public School Systems. During the academic year, Olivia Davis would seasonally tour inner city schools in order to hold dance classes with elementary through high school youth ranging from ages 5 to 18 years old.
She assessed and scouted these classrooms for students who possessed any naturally born talents or physical attributes such as high-arched feet, hip flexibility, and/or inherent coordination. She would then grant scholarships to these children through the city, offering them full admittance to The Hartford Ballet School.
This was the only time in Olivia’s lifetime that Spectrum in Motion took a back seat. Now, there were communities of youth that were counting on her attention and not only did she have an opportunity to educate students on the fundamental values and rights of cross-cultural communities, but she was also a director for what was the most highly accredited dance organization in the city. In its own way, it was a dream come true for Olivia.
While at the Hartford Ballet, Olivia Davis also created an after-school dance program called The Youth Dance Performance Project or YDPP which originated at Hartford Public High School, and I’ll never forget how it all started!
One early fall morning, I was awoken by Mama Olivia and was tempted by the offer to skip school, join her in Hartford for work, and take dance classes with her. It was the day of one of her seasonal student recruitment visits for The Dance Program for City Youth. She told me that it could be hard sometimes to get boys my age (12) to be interested and actively participate in dance classes. Of course, I was happy to be supportive in any way that I could.
The morning went according to plan. We visited an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. Both the elementary and middle school classes were essentially the same, but I started to understand how students were being evaluated through the stretches, movement combinations, and jumps we were being asked to do. Some of us could manage to follow along with the class instructions but were obviously rookies and a little clumsy, while there were some students who struggled to stay focused or even express interest in the activity at all. It wasn’t until we arrived at the high school that things changed.
At its core, YDPP was designed to be an afterschool program that gave the students an activity and kept them off the streets during weekday afternoons. Underneath it all, the program was an early effort of Olivia’s to illustrate to underrepresented students that “Dance can be a vehicle for self-discovery, a powerful tool for communication, and creative self-expression.” That movement had the power to illuminate personal strengths and weaknesses, and body language played a big part in how we interacted with one another, built relationships and expressed our emotions.
When the doors opened, a handful of students around 15 years old entered the room dressed in sweatpants and hoodies.. There were approximately four other boys and six girls who had come to take class, ten of us total. Quickly, I needed to realize that I was the baby in the room once again…
This class was so much fun!
Only being 12 years old myself, the students who had come for the Youth Dance Performance Project’s class were the oldest group of the day so the combinations and exercises could be more challenging. Almost instinctively, as the young but active kid that I was, I worked hard in order to keep up and impress these older kids that I was with. In turn, the older students also worked harder in order to not be outclassed by some little kid. Mrs. Olivia’s plan had worked.
This was the beginning of Spectrum in Motion’s second generation and new family. Only this time, the family would be composed of siblings instead of uncles and aunts. Olivia became our collective mother.
The Youth Dance Performance Project performed and toured elementary through post-secondary schools, both public and private, all over the city. Gradually they began to develop Olivia Davis’ second generation of original choreography and Spectrum in Motion was reborn!
Since 2003, Spectrum in Motion has been dedicated to educating inner city youth, and has been elevating the overall dance and theater standards in the Hartford area. They have developed educational programs such as “Instruments of Culture” a six week summer dance intensive for dancers ranging from 3 to 24 years old which ends each year with an original summer ballet based on a work of children’s literature, in addition to “Stretching for Life” a pre-professional after school dance training program operating by semester.
Spectrum in Motion’s growth and development mirrors that of its founder, Olivia Davis. It’s the story of life transforming education reflecting back to transform the lives of students of all ages, races, shapes and sizes. It was always her purpose to encourage and empower youth of color to embrace hard work and determination as a resource to fulfill their dreams. Dance was a means for her to do the same…
As an American immigrant herself, Olivia’s own message has developed over time, and illustrates the idea that cultural diversity is a fundamental pillar of the American Dream. And her mission with Spectrum in Motion remains one of communicating to her students that the way we treat ourselves and our bodies can be a window into seeing how we treat and care for one another.