For Arnel Calvario, a childhood interest in the 1970s hip-hop dance and music scene sparked a lifelong passion to improve the lives of others, especially at-risk young people, through dance as a participative and community-based cultural activity. Calvario, one of the speakers at the August Leadership Institute of the G3X Conference at CSUF Mihaylo College, discusses his background, passion and mission-driven outlook.
Arnel Calvario sees a strong connection between dance and well-being. “Dance can be a powerful and meaningful vehicle for personal growth individually and in communion with others, a creative expression, good for physical health, and even healing,” he says.
His lifelong connection to the art form began in childhood. He grew up in an inner-city Filipino-American family in which hip-hop was the go-to pastime and an escape for young people, who were exposed to the violent world of gang culture.
Coming of Age – and Staying Focused – Through Hip-Hop
“I am a kid of the 70s and was born the same year that hip-hop was created,” he says. “I was a really shy kid who lacked confidence, but had older cousins who were these really famous hip-hop poppers. I looked up to them and asked if I could be part of their popping crew while I was in elementary school. They told me I wasn’t cool enough so they let me carry the boombox.”
While many adults feared that the hip-hop sensation was an expression of the gang-based delinquency that contributed to a soaring crime rate, Calvario can testify from personal experience that this spontaneous, inclusive pastime actually saved many young people from going down a deviant path and assisted in the eventual decline of gang crime.
“If you could afford to join organized sports or studio classes, you did. But your only alternative for feelings of belonging was to join gangs,” he says. “Luckily, on the East Coast, they created the four elements of hip-hop – breaking, emceeing, graffiti art and DJing – to give kids options. Instead of joining gangs, you could join a crew.”
Calvario was attracted to three expressions within the hip-hop world: locking, which is a happy, empowering dance move borne out of the civil rights movement; popping, a more robotic expression; and breaking, a more energetic form that helped participants positively channel their aggression.
But dance wasn’t the only motivation in Calvario’s early life. For generations, his extended family on his mother’s side had been dedicated medical professionals and civic leaders. “I loved hip-hop, I was told to be a doctor, and my uncle in the Philippines was an amazing community servant. I was influenced by all these things,” he says.
The young man’s twin passions for a health-science career and dance appreciation came together as a biology student at UC Irvine, where he launched an on-campus dance group, Kaba Modern.
“I wanted to combine the old school and new school of hip-hop, so I wanted this group to be a combination of the old form that saved us from the gangs and the new that hypes everyone up,” he says. Within a few years, the concept would spread throughout California’s universities, with many campuses, including Cal State Fullerton, having Filipino-based hip-hop dance groups.
While inadvertently spearheading this cultural movement, Calvario experienced personal transformation from a shy kid to a trailblazer. “Because of the people who said ‘I believe in you,’ I changed from someone who didn’t want to be a leader and didn’t believe in myself to someone who saw potential in myself,” he says. “I learned through Kaba Modern how to work with a diverse group of people with diverse needs.”
A highlight of Calvario’s early career was appearing as a dancer in the 2001 Filipino-American feature film “The Debut,” the first major motion picture from this ethnic community to break into the Western mainstream.
The Doctor of Dance
Calvario would ultimately earn his clinical doctorate in occupational therapy from the University of Southern California (USC). Today, he is doctor of occupational therapy for the Long Beach Unified School District, the third-largest public school district in Southern California. In this role, he provides individual and group occupational therapy to children and students with special needs.
“Those qualifying for these therapy services include students with Down Syndrome, ADHD, developmental delay and autism,” says Calvario, “I’m also responsible for conducting school-based therapy evaluations for students who are not currently receiving therapy but might have a need.”
But the medical field hasn’t kept Calvario from maintaining his commitment to dance. Calvario is board president of Culture Shock LA, the regional affiliate of the San Diego-based dance center movement that encourages people of all ages to find meaning, purpose and enjoyment in the power of dance.
Under his leadership, with the assistance of Gianneschi Center Director Zoot Velasco as a board member and advisor, Calvario transformed the Los Angeles chapter to ensure a commitment to the movement’s three branches – educational, entertainment and community enrichment.
“With Culture Shock LA, we are blessed with positive-minded, talented and community-minded dancers who are passionate not only about providing top-notch performance, but also serving diverse communities in need through dance education and community enrichment programs and events,” he says. “It is a culture of kindness, creativity and encouragement, both within and externally, to all whom we serve, so it is extremely rewarding and life-changing.”
Central to the organization’s mission is a commitment to benefiting youth, with three such programs based on age: Future Shock for ages 13 to 17, Mighty Shock for eight to 12 years old, and Mini Shock for the youngest dancers of age seven or younger.
Connecting dance with broader community action efforts, Calvario has led 14 benefit shows, dedicated to such causes as HIV/AIDS awareness, domestic violence prevention and responsible use of technology.
“The most meaningful to me would be when Culture Shock LA presented its first story-based benefit show, the COLOR of WE, which depicted true stories of people affected by HIV/AIDS through music and dance,” says Calvario. “It was an emotional ride bearing the responsibility of honoring these stories well and such a meaningful experience not only raising money for three nonprofits doing great work for awareness and support, but to promote awareness to our audience, which included people who actually lived these stories. We got a standing ovation, and there were tears not only in our eyes, but in many of our audience members’ eyes as well.”
In recent years, Calvario has launched a dance therapy program for children with special needs as part of his efforts with Culture Shock LA, directly connecting his twin missions of occupational therapy and dance.
“To have these children not only remember these routines and dance therapy sessions so well after our annual sessions were done, but always ask about it the next year and have almost all of them return with the enthusiasm and support of their parents and family members is just a rewarding feeling,” he says. “The parents each year always share how much they appreciate seeing their children not only grow as performers and dancers, but as team members and family with their peers. The connection between all these dancers is so organic, honest, positive and touching. Witnessing their free, joyful artistic expression, both in the choreography they learn and the freestyle they share, is so incredibly uplifting and inspiring.”
Connecting with fellow artists, Calvario is also a member of Kinjaz, which has been described as an “artists’ brotherhood” and featured by major media outlets, such as NBC’s “World of Dance.”
“Kinjaz also sets out to make a positive difference in the world through our artistry and the positive mentality that fuels it. It is our belief that we can do more collectively than just individually with dance, so everything we do is with an intention larger than just ourselves,” he says. “We are seeking to push boundaries with what dance can do to unite and empower communities all around the world. Dance and media is our vehicle to uplift and hopefully inspire as many people as possible.”
The Power of a Mission
At the G3X Conference at CSUF Mihaylo College on Aug. 16, Calvario encouraged philanthropic sector professionals to identify and promote organizational – and even personal – mission statements and identities for maximum engagement and impact.
“We need to know who we are. No matter if you have new members or established leaders, a mission statement is your compass,” he says. “Each individual should take 10 minutes to write a personal mission statement. Imagine how strong our evolution as leaders would be if we dedicated ourselves to doing this.”
For More on the Philanthropic Field
The Gianneschi Center supports the Southern California social-profit sector through professional development of veterans and professionals as well as young people seeking to devote their careers to making a positive impact. For more information on the center, visit the Gianneschi Center website.