Stacey Strickland performs a dance move called an “airplane dive,” derived from the Lester Horton Technique. Horton was a 20th century choreographer known for his clean tilt lines, something that Strickland teaches in his dance courses at the University of La Verne.

Stacey Strickland performs a dance move called an “airplane dive,” derived from the Lester Horton Technique. Horton was a 20th century choreographer known for his clean tilt lines, something that Strickland teaches in his dance courses at the University of La Verne.

by Jayleen De La Cruz
photography by Lindsey Pacela

Stacey Strickland strikes a pose in a dance position derived from a blend of modern and jazz techniques. He teaches these variations of dance to his classes at the University of La Verne.

Stacey Strickland strikes a pose in a dance position derived from a blend of modern and jazz techniques. He teaches these variations of dance to his classes at the University of La Verne.

Stacey Strickland is a dedicated dance instructor at the University of La Verne who is all about passion and positivity. Despite facing tough times growing up, he never gave up on his dream. Now he’s living it, teaching and spreading his love for dance and music to his students every day.

In the mid-2000s, a young Stacey Strickland wandered the corridors of Community Harvest Charter School in Sherman Oaks, California, the rhythmic beats of the dance class echoing through the halls as students mastered new choreography. Unbeknownst to him, those daily walks would shape his life forever.

To most people—and professionals in the dance community—starting dance at such a late time in life can turn out to not be the most achievable goal if someone wants to dance professionally. But “impossible” was not part of Stacy’s vocabulary. He found his passion for dance when he took his first dance class as a freshman in high school. He then realized that with hard work and determination, he would be able to accomplish his goals, prove the skeptics wrong, and make his lifelong goal of helping people through his profession a reality.

Stacey had not danced a day in his life, and had taken his first class as a freshman in high school. Before dance, Stacey had his mind set on becoming a lawyer because he wanted to be a voice for people who didn’t have one. As time went on, and he discovered his love for music and dance, Stacey knew that if he changed his career path to become a dance instructor, he would still be able to help people, albeit in a different form. “Law is great, but with dance and the arts, I can reach multitudes of people and help them find their own voices,” says Stacey.

As a child, Stacey was immersed in a vibrant world of music and movement. Upon returning home from school, he was greeted by the sight of his mother, Frederica Ferguson, “busting it out” to the beats of Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston, while his maternal grandmother, Betty Jean Ferguson, serenaded the room with the melodies of Julio Iglesias. In this lively atmosphere, Stacey’s passion for music and dance took root at an early age. He found himself drawn to the rhythms of his favorite Latin artist, Selena Quintanilla, whose music ignited his imagination and sparked his own dance performances. “Just imagine me at 9 years old, twisting my little hips to ‘Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,’” Stacey says, reflecting on the defining moments that shaped his lifelong love for movement and music.

As Stacey grew older, he spent hours in his room, immersing himself in music and dance, envisioning himself captivating vast audiences on stage. His passion for music and movement ultimately drew him to Ashanti Roberts-Johnson, his first dance instructor and lifelong mentor. “He was taking a math class during one of my dance periods, and I noticed him peeking into my classroom a couple of times,” Ashanti says. Stacy would pretend he needed to use the restroom, always at the same time to catch a glimpse of Ashanti’s vibrant choreography at Community Harvest Charter School.

Ashanti couldn’t ignore the dedicated student who kept trying to catch a glimpse of her class. Not only was Stacey mesmerized by the choreography, but he would follow along and do the steps where he thought no one was watching. “One time, I caught him in the hallway and asked him if he was a dancer,” Ashanti says. To her astonishment, Stacey had never participated in a formal dance class, aside from a handful of line dancing sessions. Impressed by his natural talent and apparent lack of formal training, Ashanti promptly invited him to join one of her classes.

Stacey Strickland assists Olivia Serben, a freshman political science major and dance student.

Stacey Strickland assists Olivia Serben, a freshman political
science major and dance student.

Despite Stacey’s eagerness to enroll in Ashanti’s classes, his schedule for that semester was already packed, leaving no room to accommodate it. However, his busy schedule didn’t deter him from expressing his passion for dance, as he continued to dance with unrestrained enthusiasm. “Every time I saw him, he was always moving,” Ashanti says. “You can just tell he was a natural dancer.”

When Stacey finally took his first dance class, something clicked. “After that, I was hooked” Stacey joyfully remembers. It wasn’t just about dancing; it was like a light bulb went off in his head. From then on, he knew dance was his calling. Once Stacey discovered his passion for dance, he embarked on a journey to explore every style that crossed his path. “I trained in everything from ballet and modern jazz to touching into Afro-Cuban and more traditional dance. It was a well-rounded study, and I learned so much in relation to varying cultures and different minority communities,” Stacey explains.

Despite discovering his passion for dance, Stacey faced significant pressure to pursue a career in law as his high school journey was ending. This expectation came primarily from his family, but intensified as he explored contemporary art forms. It was during this time that he started to wrestle with questions surrounding his sexuality, which some people weren’t ready for. There was specifically a point in time when his mom was not very supportive of dance, due to his sexuality being in question. But by that point, his mind was made up. “It was something that I couldn’t part from. As I got older, I was like okay, let’s forget the world, because this is my focus, and who I am.”

Much of Stacey’s mindset and outlook can be attributed to the influence of his maternal grandmother, who instilled in him the importance of embracing his true, authentic self. Stacey recalls a time in his childhood when his maternal grandmother helped his family accept who he was by expressing that it was okay to be gay. “Let that boy be!” Betty Jean told them. Until the day she passed, Stacey’s grandmother would always say to him “Be yourself, no matter what anyone else has to say.”

Stacey Strickland leads his Contemporary Dance Workshop class in stretching exercises. He always ensures that his students stretch before each class to avoid injury.

Stacey Strickland leads his Contemporary Dance Workshop class in stretching exercises. He always ensures that his students stretch before each class to avoid injury.

As Stacey committed to following his passion for dance, he realized that his journey was only just beginning. He decided to apply to many dance colleges to pursue his career in dance. Stacey ended up attending Santa Monica College. His decision was based on wanting to attend a good dance institution and be close to home in Los Angeles. A typical day for Stacey involved commuting to his dance class at Santa Monica College. He would rise early, catching the bus at 4:45 a.m. to ensure he arrived for his 6:45 a.m. apprenticeship, followed by class at 8 a.m. After school ended at 2:30 p.m., he’d head to the dance studio, taking another class at 5 p.m., which lasted until 10:30 p.m. Returning home, he’d tackle homework, steal a quick nap, and prepare to do it all again the next day.

Throughout his training journey, Stacey was under the guidance of many dance instructors, with Lulu Washington providing the bulk of his training. During those training years, there were occasions when Stacey clashed with certain professors who upheld traditional views, believing that male dancers should conform to specific physical standards deemed as the norm in the dance world.

There was a notable incident where his dance instructor, Karen McDonald, paused the class to reference a book illustrating how a particular movement should be executed. However, all the images featured male dancers with specific body types, leading the instructor to single out Stacey for not conforming to those standards in his execution of the movements.

But even though the professor disliked his body image, she loved how he moved. Stacey recalls Karen saying, “You guys need to move like Stacey is moving, move like him.”

Students work on their own personal choreography to add on to what professor Stacey Strickland has taught them throughout the spring 2024 semester. The original choreography was showcased in their end-of-semester dance show in May.

Students work on their own personal choreography to add on to what professor Stacey Strickland has taught them throughout the spring 2024 semester. The original choreography was showcased in their end-of-semester dance show in May.

In the midst of all the challenges and experiences Stacey encountered, he found his preference for a teaching setting. “Performance is great, but I love creating.”

As the time came for Stacey to decide what path he wanted his dance career to take, he ended up choosing an instructor path. This came as no surprise to many of his close friends, family and mentors as they agreed that his path was always meant to be teaching. Among them is his long-time friend and vocal coach, Reginald Johnson. “Teaching dance is what he was meant to do because he incorporates a lot of his life skills with his natural ability by observing what his students need.”

Stacey’s talent for connecting with students played a pivotal role in his decision to join the University of La Verne. His passion for teaching college-age students and igniting their interest in the arts motivated him to apply for the position of dance instructor.

He began teaching at the University in March 2019, just as spring break was ending, making the end of the spring 2024 semester his official fifth year. Stacey’s journey at La Verne began with teaching a singular hip-hop class, while another administrator managed the other dance courses, including Social Dance and Ballroom. However, with the administrator’s retirement in 2022, Stacy was presented with a chance to try something new. The department chair asked if he’d like to take over the classes. Stacey jumped at the opportunity. This led to a big change in the curriculum, with hip-hop, contemporary, and social dance now on offer.

As the fall 2022 semester began, Stacey not only taught dance but also experienced personal growth. He mustered the courage to step out of his comfort zone and attend an LGBTQ+ faculty diversity group at the University of La Verne. This is where he met colleague and friend Alesha Knox, associate director of Multicultural Affairs and Black Student Services.

In between conversations, Stacey shared with Alesha his desire to contribute more to campus diversity and inclusion efforts. His expressed aspirations led to an introduction to Alexandra Burrel, associate vice president and chief of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office. Alexandra, seeking an assistant, recognized Stacey’s commitment and eagerness to make a difference.

Day by day, Stacey embraced his new responsibilities with determination. As the Spring 2024 semester wraps up, he looks back on his journey with gratitude. Excited for what lies ahead, Stacey eagerly awaits the next chapter in his role at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, completing his second full school year in this impactful position.

Having spent half a decade at the University, Stacey confidently expresses his love for the campus and its students. “In places where I’ve been, you can tell students take their education for granted, but here, there’s a zest and hunger. Once I got to know the students, I couldn’t see myself teaching anywhere else.” Many students are captivated by his teaching approach and unique style.

Stacey Strickland helps a student stretch as part of the warm up for the spring 2024 Contemporary Dance Workshop class.

Stacey Strickland helps a student stretch as part of the warm up for the spring 2024 Contemporary Dance Workshop class.

Among them is Harmonie Outlaw, who started as Stacey’s dance student during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is now his colleague. “He is a fun goofball professor, but when it is time to get things done, it’s time to get things done,” Harmony says.

Stacey’s deep affection for the campus, students and administration is what solidifies his belief that he can envision himself continuing to teach at La Verne for at least another 15 years. “I feel at home here. I am a Leo for life.”

In his role as a professor, Stacey prioritizes granting his students the freedom to authentically express themselves.

“I found my voice, and found who I was as a person through movement. For me, that is one of the biggest things to pass on,” he says. “A lot of people struggle to find their own identity. It is not about gender or sexuality. It is about who you are.”

Stacey loves his students so much that he allows himself to be the support system that they need in order for them to feel a connection of trust. “In order to earn the students’ trust, in order for them to be open, I have to be willing to be vulnerable.” Stacey’s commitment to his students goes beyond the classroom. If a student wants to talk at 2 or 3 in the morning, Stacey will make himself a cup of coffee to listen and stay awake. If a student needs supplies for an emergency, he will pay for those resources out of his own pocket.

“As a professor, I teach dance, but I also teach life,” he says. “The teaching doesn’t only go on in my classroom, it goes on.”

At the end of the Contemporary Dance Workshop class, professor Stacey Strickland gives his dance students a pep talk and explains the work ahead.

At the end of the Contemporary Dance Workshop class, professor Stacey Strickland gives his dance students a pep talk and explains the work ahead.

Jayleen De La Cruz is a sophomore communications major at the University of La Verne.

Lindsey Pacela is a senior journalism and psychology major at the University of La Verne, and editor-in-chief of the Winter 2023 issue of La Verne Magazine.