COMMUNITY GEM: Dance teacher ‘a model of what she’s putting into the world’

DeShona Pepper Robertson (left) teaches an advanced dance class during a summer immersion dance camp at Stivers School for the Arts in Dayton. LISA POWELL / STAFF

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DeShona Pepper Robertson (left) teaches an advanced dance class during a summer immersion dance camp at Stivers School for the Arts in Dayton. LISA POWELL / STAFF

As dance director at Stivers School for the Arts, DeShona Pepper Robertson’s curriculum is only the start of what her students are learning.

“They think I’m teaching dance, but it’s more than that,” she said.

What she also is offering is access to opportunities, such as the ones that led her to become a principal dancer with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

Robertson, 53, moved from Chicago to Dayton in 1992 to dance with DCDC, retiring in 2004 to take on a full-time role at Stivers. Part of Dayton Public Schools, Stivers accepts students in grades 7-12 via an audition process in a variety of art forms.

She teaches dance to nearly 100 students every day, also designing lesson plans and a curriculum that includes ballet, modern dance, choreography and more.

The standards are high. Robertson and her team prepare students to dance as a college major, whether or not they choose to do so. Stivers has 75 students enrolled in the dance program, and of the 15 seniors, 3 are going into dance at college – all boys, including one who began dancing just two years ago, she said.

“But because we’re pushing excellence, they’re able to go into anything,” she said.

She credits many of her own opportunities and success to people like Jeraldyne Blunden, DCDC’s founder. As a child, Blunden and her mother had to search for a place to train and dance because many studios didn’t want to teach a Black girl.

“We stand on the shoulders of many,” she said.

Poet and writer Sierra Leone nominated Robertson as a Dayton Daily News Community Gem. Leone, who has known Robertson as both a professional colleague and friend for 15 years, praised her commitment both to her students and to excellence.

A Juneteenth celebration where her students danced stands out to Leone. As the world paused in the middle of a pandemic, her students brought movement, life and a glimpse into the future.

“It gave a light to the experience that was needed on such a greater level than I ever imagined,” Leone said.

In addition to dance, Robertson teaches her students life skills like how to treat others and how they themselves should be treated, Leone said. She is a role model to her students, and the experiences she gives them and prepares them for both inside and outside of the classroom are priceless.

“She’s a model of what she’s putting into the world,” Leone said.

Robertson said that students rise to the standards that they are given.

“Dance empowers them to feel invincible,” said Robertson, who lives in Dayton with her husband, Alex, and their 15-year-old son, William. She calls her husband, an elementary school principal, her biggest influence as an educator.

While her students at Stivers are there for dance, Robertson knows that it is also her words that affect each and every child.

“All you have to do is love the kids 1,000 percent,” she said.

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