USC Rossier grad Jessica Pereira is helping students find their rhythm

Through ballet, this Trojan and dance director discovered a love for education

By Kianoosh Hashemzadeh

Jessica Pereira at Kāhala Beach in Honolulu. (Photo/Eugene Kam)

Jessica Pereira first began to dance when she was five or six years old. Her older sister Kristin was taking ballet classes, and Pereira was at the age where she wanted to copy everything she did. So, she too enrolled in classes at Queen Emma Ballet in Honolulu, where they grew up.

Pereira describes her sister as a “very gifted ballet dancer.” Pereira, on the other hand, says she was not quite as talented. She recalls making her mother laugh when moving awkwardly onstage, not quite in sync with the other dancers. Pereira didn’t know it at the time, but those early days of dancing would spark a lifelong commitment to the practice.

Pereira has since found her rhythm and gone on to dance professionally. Currently a member of Honolulu’s prestigious Tau Dance Theatre, Pereira balances training and performing with a full-time job as dance director at Sacred Hearts Academy.

After she graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa in 2016 with a bachelor’s in English and a minor in dance, Pereira taught first grade for one year at Ali‘iolani Elementary School, an experience more difficult “than any seven-hour rehearsal.” And while she enjoyed teaching, she knew if a position came along that married her passion for dance to education, she would jump for it. She calls her position as dance director at Sacred Hearts Academy, where she instructs students from seventh to 12th grade and directs all of the school’s dance program productions, her “dream job.”

Even though Pereira landed the perfect job, she wasn’t content. She’d grown up planning to pursue her studies beyond her bachelor’s. For her master’s, Pereira was determined to earn the degree from her “dream school,” the University of Southern California. In USC Rossier’s Master of Education in Learning Design and Technology online program, Pereira found a course of study that suited her busy schedule and would equip her with the skills “to design effective learning strategies” for teaching dance.

The LDT program, Pereira says, caters to students who are pursuing education careers outside of the traditional classroom. This has made for an eclectic cohort of students that Pereira has found invaluable. “People assume that when you’re in the field of education, you are a teacher,” she explains, “but people learn in all aspects of their lives.” The LDT program, she says, “is not only shaping traditional classroom educators but also paving the way for so many people in many different professional fields to be effective [teachers].”

Hawaiian values

Pereira describes herself as a “lifelong learner,” a quality instilled in her by her family. Born and raised in Honolulu, her mother is Hawaiian and her father is an immigrant from Macao. Her grandparents were also a constant in her life—often taking her to ballet classes and school, helping her study with flashcards during the car ride. They were always conversing with her, asking her questions and encouraging her to ask questions of her own.

Despite not having the “typical, local Hawai‘i upbringing,” Pereira was raised with “community-based values.” Diversity was not only welcomed but was the norm. For many growing up in Hawai‘i, Pereira says, laughing, “the more ethnicities you have the cooler you are on the playground.” When she reflects on the summer of 2020, as Americans took to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, she feels privileged to have grown up in a place that values diversity and welcomes it “with open arms.”

Pereira was pleasantly surprised to see some of the Hawaiian values she was brought up with included in the curriculum at USC Rossier. These values—malama, to tend to the needs of others and the world; pono, to live righteously; laulima, to work together; and aloha, to always live with love—are found on the walls of many a classroom in Hawai‘i. Pereira’s time at USC Rossier, she says, has prepared her “to confront chaos with education,” and to be an educator able to “tend to the needs of the world.”

From theory to practice

While Pereira’s studies at USC Rossier have helped shape her ideas about education, she also was able to put theory into practice. Teaching psychomotor skills online was relatively uncommon until the pandemic forced students across the globe, including Pereira’s, into remote learning. With the pandemic momentarily pausing nearly all dance performances, Pereira saw a decline in motivation in her students. For her capstone project, Pereira designed a program called “Goal Setting for Improved Strength and Flexibility for Dancers.”

The program she created and implemented at Sacred Hearts Academy provides her students with goal-setting strategies to improve strength and flexibility. Not only did the students check off daily actions, but the program also incorporated space for reflection as the students worked toward reaching their milestones.

Professor of Clinical Education Kenneth Yates worked with Pereira on the project, which he says “was exceptionally comprehensive and creative.” He views dance as the place “where art and athletics intersect,” and “building expertise in dance requires learning and instruction in both physical and psychological knowledge, skills and attitudes,” he says. Pereira’s project is “unique in that it addresses all of these to improve dance techniques and motivation,” he says, “especially self-directed goal setting and self-efficacy.”

Pereira also cites professor Christine Mendoza as being especially essential to her success in the program. Mendoza is also a dancer, and it was helpful for Pereira to discuss the challenges particular to teaching dance with someone familiar with dance culture.

For Pereira, dance is not only a culture—one that emphasizes both creativity and discipline—but also a language. The fundamental movements she learned in ballet gave her the foundation—the grammar—to create expressions in a range of dance forms. As she teaches the next generation of dancers, Pereira hopes to provide her students with a strong technical base and the ability to use these tools creatively, so they too can experience the joy of expressing themselves through movement.

After a summer catching up with friends and family in person, Pereira hopes to return to performing and looks forward to expanding and enhancing the dance program at Sacred Hearts Academy. While she doesn’t count out that her career might lead her to other shores, she knows that wherever she might end up, Honolulu is her “end all and be all,” the special place she will always call home.

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