Talent Search

Posted on October 16, 2008 by

As a child, former New York City Ballet principal Jacques d’Amboise was an unruly street kid with a hyperactive streak, but his sister’s ballet teacher recognized a natural mover and cajoled him into her classes. Eight months later, the humble Madame Seda told d’Amboise’s mother to enroll him in the School of American Ballet, where he could study with “better teachers,” and the rest is history.

It’s telling that this is the teacher whom d’Amboise credits with launching his career—rather than the famous masters with whom he later studied. And he isn’t the only one; the biographies of dance luminaries are rife with early teachers who spotted their innate talent and encouraged them to pursue the artform.

Even more so than Madame Seda, K–12 educators are uniquely positioned to introduce dance to kids who otherwise might never discover it. These teachers know better than anyone how dance can positively influence children socially, emotionally and intellectually—whether or not they become the next d’Amboise. But arts education expert Barry Oreck says K–12 dance teachers’ responsibility goes beyond simply exposing kids to dance. He feels they also have a duty to identify students with natural talent, and make sure those children have access to further study.

“There is so little dance in schools that the idea of offering advanced instruction seems like an either-or decision—either you have a dance
company for highly interested kids, or an introductory exposure for all kids,” admits Oreck, who has worked extensively in NYC schools and is currently an adjunct faculty member at several universities and a consultant for school districts and arts education organizations across the country. “Of course, there should be both. But if we don’t challenge kids who are ready, and give them specialized training that they may not know how to find or afford, then we’re failing potentially talented kids.”

Eighteen years ago, Oreck helped develop a system for assessing dance
talent in public schools. His discoveries tell us a great deal about talent and how to identify it, while challenging some
previous notions about what makes a good dancer. Below, Oreck talks about the process and how to put it to use.

Birth of an Idea

It began when Oreck discovered the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, developed by Joseph Renzulli at the University of Connecticut and widely used in gifted education. Then director of in-school programs at ArtsConnection in NYC, Oreck was assessing an audition-based program that offered public school students weekly dance classes at professional studios. He saw that the program had a high dropout rate, and looked to Renzulli’s model to explain his findings.

“One of the program’s goals was to help students improve in school by offering them special training in something they loved and excelled in,” Oreck recalls. Those selected for the program exhibited creativity, high energy, physical responsiveness and emotional expressiveness—qualities that, while valued in a dance class, can cause trouble in an academic setting.

The students who took dance did not improve in school, as hoped. And as Oreck continued his research, it became clear that “without support from classroom teachers, transferring success from arts to academics was unlikely to happen.”

So, starting in 1990, with a U.S. Department of Education Gifted and Talented grant, ArtsConnection researched and created a new, systematic assessment process based on the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. The system, called the Dance Talent Assessment Process, differed critically in that it included classroom teachers in the selection process. As he observed DTAP in action, Oreck found that many of the students identified as talented made improvements in the classroom. “We altered the teachers’ way of looking at these children,” he explains. “Now they saw them as people with dance ability as opposed to just squirming all the time.”

Defining Dance Talent

Renzulli’s Schoolwide Enrichment Model defines giftedness as “a set of behaviors, not a permanent state of being defined by a test score or other single measure.” It is represented by interlocking rings—above-average ability, creativity and task commitment—with giftedness emerging where the rings intersect. In movement, for example, a child with average natural rhythm and agility, but a beautiful quality of and commitment to movement, as well as a strong work ethic, may be gifted in ways that do not fit traditional definitions of dance talent.

In order to develop procedures and criteria for DTAP, a diverse group of professional dancers and dance educators representing a variety of genres were invited to help define what makes an outstanding dancer. Like Renzulli, they based their criteria on behaviors rather than traditional technique (like turnout), and decided that assessment required a range of activities that allowed every child to show what he or she could do.

The expressiveness category, for instance, includes “shows pleasure in movement,” “performs with energy and intensity” and “communicates feelings.” Other categories include spatial awareness (“adjusts to other dancers and the space”) and perseverance (“doesn’t give up, improves over time”). These descriptors help observers discard “limiting ideas of what a dancer looks like,” Oreck says.

Interest is Key

Oreck downplays the word “talent,” and instead focuses on who is ready for more challenging instruction at a
particular time. There isn’t a “one-to-one correlation between interest and talent, but it’s pretty close,” he says. “We tend to be drawn to the things we’re good at.”

Other people can be interested in something but have little talent for it. This is often indicated by loss of interest and quitting as instruction advances.

Most of the children Oreck assessed in public schools had no formal dance training. With that in mind, the broad range of skills outlined in DTAP’s criteria could be assessed only through full involvement in several dance classes. He says it ideally takes several weeks to evaluate everyone equally.

“A small number of kids you’ll notice in the first 10 minutes; you’re drawn to them,” Oreck says. “Some things are obvious—coordination, rhythm, ease of picking up movement. But children who have different sorts of abilities, interests and backgrounds take longer to notice.” After a few weeks, some students are ready for greater challenges, while others, even those who meet some of the criteria, would just as soon quit. Thus, the in-depth, multi-week assessment structure is a better predictor of success in a challenging dance program, and has been shown to boost retention.

Even so, Oreck emphasizes that DTAP is only a “strong indication” of talent, adding that “it takes a year or two of instruction before a student’s full potential and desire is developed.”

Putting Assessment to Work

As any dance teacher who has tried to conduct systematic assessment knows, it’s difficult for one person to both lead a class and assess at the same time. Ideally, two artists—one teaching, one observing—along with the classroom teacher, conduct the assessment.

Since this isn’t always possible, teachers who work alone may choose to assess over a number of sessions, concentrating on a few children on any given day or for a particular activity. The key is to structure the assessment activity to be able to watch, rather than having to lead at all times.

Some school-based dance teachers have collaborated with other in-school specialists—a music or drama teacher, the gifted education specialist or a classroom teacher with a dance background—to help.

When assessment reveals a group of talented dancers, it may motivate some schools to create a dance club or a
student dance company as an elective. Short-term workshops that rotate throughout the grades may be developed to serve those not initially selected for advanced instruction, and students should have the opportunity to be re-evaluated in subsequent years.

In addition, Oreck notes, “we found that nothing motivates parents more than knowing their child is talented.” It begins at parent-teacher conferences with the classroom teacher explaining, “Your child is good at dance. This is something you can help support.” Once the assessment is explained, children are more likely to enroll in local studios or other dance programs.

Other Benefits

School-based dance teachers see hundreds of kids a week, and it can often be hard to learn names. In Cleveland, dancer Tom Evert taught for a year in two schools. In one he used the assessment process, and by the end of the year, he knew all the children by name and was able to easily pick who he wanted to participate in a professional performance. At the other school, he admitted, the kids were a blur.

DTAP criteria can also be used to create a grading system. While grading in the arts is always tricky, DTAP’s observable, defined criteria allow teachers to confidently produce performance-based assessments of their students rather than resort to traditional, but perhaps less relevant, academic methods.

Another important benefit of this process is how it changes classroom teachers’ perceptions of their students. “The teachers were actually very good at being able to observe and identify kids with dance talent based on the carefully designed lessons,” Oreck recalls. “It took a few sessions, but they got very close to the professionals in terms of their observations and vocabulary. And when teachers saw how
successful some of their struggling students were in dance, they were much more open to using some of these techniques in their own teaching practice.”

Oreck is skeptical, however, of much of the research suggesting a direct transfer from learning in the arts to improvement in other academic areas. “There are lots of ways that dance can help kids understand things, but I don’t think that learning in dance inevitably translates to improved math or reading,” he says. Rather, arts integration—the blending of the arts and curricular subject matter—only works when it helps make links. And the classroom teacher is critical to making those links, which is why bringing teachers into DTAP was crucial to the success of the process.

A Lasting Impact

Though the grant ended in 1996, DTAP continues to be used in several interesting ways. ArtsConnection has used it to help classroom teachers understand and appreciate the kind of learning that takes place through dance, and another program is using dance to examine language acquisition.

In this model, a teaching artist works with students while classroom teachers observe, using a checklist of characteristics and behaviors to understand more about how children acquire language skills.

Meanwhile, districts across the country have adopted the process to select students for arts magnet schools that want to attract those with and without formal training. The state of Ohio has adapted DTAP as its official dance screening for identifying children for gifted and talented programs.

There’s no question that arts education is a limited resource. But Oreck seeks to assuage critics who fear that talent assessment may result in limiting access only to those with a natural aptitude. “Of course all children should have dance, but for some it’s an essential part of making them successful in school, and making school a place where they want to be,” he says. “I don’t want to limit instruction to a general, introductory level. Just like advanced math or reading, I’d like there to be some advanced dance in school.” DT

Teaching artist Carrie Stern, PhD, writes “Dance Brooklyn” for the Brooklyn Eagle. 

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