It was 2005, and Spencer Pulu was having a rough year. He was in seventh grade at Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland. After getting into a physical fight with some other students, and then graffitiing all over the school’s campus, he’d been suspended and had fallen behind in his schoolwork.
The 13-year-old had a choice to make: He could repeat the seventh grade, go to summer school or attend Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp, a summer dance program for youth produced by UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances.
He chose AileyCamp.
When he got there, he didn’t know what to make of it. He came in with the mindset that dancing was for girls and women, not something that boys and men did — at least not the sort of men that he’d had as role models growing up in a large, religious Tongan family.
But as he started to take classes in dance, he began to feel more free, more himself, able to express his emerging queerness through movement. He didn’t feel like he had to name what he was feeling, but instead he could explore it in a way that felt natural.
“I had done a lot of Pacific Islander traditional dancing and performing at school assemblies and at church or family reunions,” said Pulu, who goes by SPULU. “But Tongan tradition is very grounded, very gender-specific to what the movements are, and it’s limited to cultural practices.
“I think having modern dance instructors who were also men and who were also masculine gave me a different outlook of what it looks like to be a man in a dance space. I could move freely and express and explore other dance vocabularies.”
Now, nearly two decades later, SPULU is the associate director of Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp, a six-week, full-scholarship dance program where students ages 11 to 14 attend daily classes in ballet, jazz, modern and West African dance.
This year, 70 campers from the Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond and Albany unified school districts are participating in the program. Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp is one of 10 AileyCamps nationwide and the only one held on a university campus. The program, which grew from Cal Performances’ nearly 60-year relationship with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, has had more than 1,200 campers participate since it began in 2002.
“Cal Performances’ underwriting and producing of Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp is an example of what makes Cal Performances such an invaluable contributing member of our UC Berkeley and greater Bay Area community,” said Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. “We are pleased to have the opportunity to welcome the campers to our campus and for them to begin to see themselves succeeding in a university setting like Berkeley.”
“Performance is a means by which we can learn about ourselves and about the world around us,” said Jeremy Geffen, executive and artistic director of Cal Performances. “And as we know from experiences with AileyCamp, this ability to foster growth and empathy can be transformative at an often-tumultuous time in young people’s lives.”
In addition to learning dance, students also take classes in creative communication and personal development.
“A lot of the campers, they really have so much to say,” said SPULU. “They are learning to express themselves through writing, through poetry, through painting, through collage. And they’re having heavy discussions about decision-making, and about peer mediation and conflict resolution. They’re having these deep discussions that they aren’t having at school or at home.”
SPULU works with camp director Patricia West to help create a structured and supportive experience for youth that is as warm as it is demanding.
Every camper is given the same dance attire — black unitards — and is required to pull their hair back so that it’s not a distraction during class. They all eat breakfast and lunch together in Berkeley’s International House dining commons. And phones are not allowed. For many campers, said SPULU, it’s the first time they’ve been totally unplugged from technology and the first time they’ve moved their bodies for hours every day.
“They’re activating muscles they haven’t used as much,” said SPULU. “They’re exploring what healthy food choices look like. They’re trying to use their brains more. Because we’re pushing them to move, a lot of them are seeing changes in their bodies.”
By the end of the camp, said SPULU, students have so many more tools than when they first arrived. Not only are they more confident and self-expressive in dance, they’re able to communicate with their peers and voice their needs and opinions in constructive ways. This year, for the first time, there are more leadership roles for returning campers, so they can build their mentorship skills and help foster a greater sense of community within the camp.
“They’re really blooming during their sixth week of camp,” said SPULU. “They get to walk away and know that they can contribute to this country and society in ways that they can make a difference. As I share my story and my experience, that’s a connection that I have with the campers.”
After SPULU participated in AileyCamp at 13, he went on to come out as queer and find his voice in activism. He became a student organizer and participated in peer health education programs in middle school. He advocated for greater access to books and resources in the Oakland public schools and has participated in countless other demonstrations and rallies in Oakland.
As a college student, SPULU came back to AileyCamp to work as group leader. He said having been an AileyCamper himself years before helped him learn to lead with empathy and honesty, always open to growing and learning from the AileyCamp community.
After six weeks of intensive training, campers will give a final performance in Zellerbach Hall on campus to celebrate their progress and showcase their new skills to their families and friends and anyone else who’d like to attend.
The final showcase performance, Points of View, will take place Thursday, July 27, at 7 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall. The performance is free and open to the public. Reservations are recommended and can be made online, with a limit of four per person. Tickets may also be available at the door the night of the performance, based on availability.
Watch a video about a day in the life of an AileyCamper on Cal Performances’ blog, Beyond the Stage.
Learn more about Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp and watch videos of past performances on Cal Performances’ website.