Creating a dance program is like piecing together a puzzle that doesn’t come with the finished picture printed on the box. You must first imagine the image as you’d like it to look, and then start the painstaking process of arranging—and rearranging—the pieces.
“I think you decide what your philosophy is and what kind of kids you want to grow,” says Martie Barylick, National Dance Education Organization board member specializing in K–12 curriculum and standards, and a 35-year veteran high school dance teacher in Mamaroneck, New York. “Then you figure out what you need to have them do to become those people. You look at the standards and ask, ‘While I’m doing this, which standards am I meeting and which am I not?’ That’s how you flesh out the rest of your program. You’re always reassessing.”
Here, we look at three dance teachers who, like Barylick, have built high school dance programs one piece at a time. All three have earned accolades for their programs, which are held up as models across the country. And each, at one time or another, has run the show entirely on her own. How did they do it? Their approaches may differ, yet all credit their students with making their continued success possible, whether by shouldering some of the creative and administrative tasks, or simply by inspiring unique experiences year after year.
“It’s that exchange of energy between the students and teacher,” says CeCe Kapron, who has taught at Mt. Lebanon High School outside of Pittsburgh for 37 years. “There’s so much energy and interest that it sparks your enthusiasm. I feel as fresh today as when I first started, but I know so much more.”
If You Build It They Will Come
Mary Ann Laverty went to Woodside High School in Newport News, Virginia, a decade ago to revamp a program that offered no technique, had no funding and was rapidly losing students. Parents and students had been bitterly disappointed with the previous program, so Laverty’s first order of business was to turn their perception around. She wrote mini-grants to fund new costumes. She choreographed new pieces and let her students show the school and local community what they could do. “They liked my choreography,” she says. “If you’ve got strong choreography, you’re going to draw kids.” Enrollment quadrupled.
“Those first years were a little rough,” Laverty says. “It wasn’t an instant change at all.” She started out with two dance classes of 15 students each. She eventually added a third level of technique, as well as courses in choreography, theory and history and world dance. “I didn’t want to duplicate what they get in a studio,” she says. “I wanted to have them think in broader terms about what dance encompasses and have the chance to create their own choreography and explore their own ideas.”
Listen to What Students Want
Eight years ago, when Sanja Korman joined the faculty of Bellaire High School in Houston, Texas, the school’s only dance offering was a club with 20 members. She spent her first year getting the lay of the land. When she noticed kids doing hip hop and break-dancing in the halls, she decided to create a dance company that would be fed by two classes, hip hop/break-dance and modern.
“I had the opportunity to choose from the state objectives,” she explains. “But I also listened to understand what is popular right now and to see what these kids are interested in.” After a few hundred of the school’s 3,500 students showed up for an audition, the administration gave her the go-ahead. “The next year I had two beginning dance classes plus the hip hop and modern. And the year after, I created an intermediate class.”
Blueprint for Success
Kapron of Mt. Lebanon High School considers it essential to plot a clear outline of what she wants her students to learn and how she will assess their work. She uses a curriculum planning method called Understanding by Design, which advocates starting at the end, i.e. imagining that finished puzzle. “You state your desired results, then figure out how to assess those results, then determine the knowledge and skills necessary,” she says. “To me that makes teaching much more solid.”
Kapron teaches an audition-only performance class, which focuses primarily on composition, and Dance I, II and III, each of which covers units in ballet, jazz, musical theater and modern. “We teach the production, performance and exhibition of dance,” she says. “We also teach the history and the cultural context of whatever genre it is that we’re working on. They learn how to critically and aesthetically respond. And all of my students have an opportunity to create dances and make artistic choices, and perform for the other students.”
Let Students Take the Lead
Korman is Bellaire High School’s sole concert dance teacher, so she relies heavily on her students to keep the program running smoothly. She appoints student officers who help out during classes and create choreography. “They all would like to be my officers,” she says. “It’s a big deal for them. For me, it’s a necessity. In my hip-hop class I have about 60 students, so I could not even take attendance if I didn’t have my officers to help me out.”
The arrangement creates a unique learning experience. “It’s not only that I stand in front of them and teach,” she explains. “I’m using the self-inquiry method where they can choreograph and show me what they’re doing in their groups. I think this mix of teaching styles is good for them. It motivates students to work even harder and really learn.”
Because Laverty was the only full-time dance teacher at Woodside for five years, she felt it was particularly important to establish an objective system for determining which students advanced to the next level of technique. Her solution was to create a panel consisting of two other dance teachers (Hope Hunter, who now also works at Woodside, plus a teacher from outside the school) and a student to help her decide. “It got more competitive to get to the higher levels,” she says. “This way, they can’t say, ‘I didn’t make it because she doesn’t like me.’”
Strength in Numbers
The sad truth is that no matter how good a dance program is, keeping it can often be a struggle. Beyond the ever-present threat of budget cuts, students are packing their schedules with more academic courses, leaving less time for arts classes. The result is that dance teachers often find themselves competing with music, art and theater in order to keep their numbers up and avoid having classes cut.
“Merge. Have the same goals. Get allies,” advises Barylick, who adds that Mamaroneck High School long ago adopted an integrated arts program, which means that all students take dance, theater and music as a package, and the three teachers work together to align their goals. “I think we’ve survived all these years because we have the same values.”
Kapron practices this by spearheading collaborations with other departments, including music, television production and English. “I try to do as many varied things as I can in terms of collaborative work in the school,” she says. “Our string quartet will often play for our dance concert. One time, a girl wrote a poem, someone from the music department sang and we did a dance.”
A Work in Progress
It isn’t always a cakewalk, the three teachers admit. Sometimes the puzzle looks like it will never come together, and the
reality is that it’s never finished. For example, because Laverty’s program at Woodside is technically part of the physical education department, it doesn’t have its own budget. “Everything those kids have, they’ve gone out and fundraised for,” she says. Performance ticket sales also help support the program.
Learning to ask her students for help has been one of her biggest challenges, Laverty adds. “I used to take it all on myself,” she says. “I had to learn to delegate. They’re smart and have really good ideas.”
No matter how good a program is, things can always be better. Laverty’s wish list includes a black box theater for student showcases, more time to write grants, an after-school program and dance in schools throughout the district.
And then there’s the age-old problem of space. The studio, originally built as a chemistry lab, is small and low-ceilinged, making partnering treacherous. “Two of our classes are taught in the gym now,” Laverty says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get another studio. And with so many budget cuts, they’re talking about increasing class sizes next year. You always need more time and money. We have problems, but we still have to make sure that what we do is excellent.”
If You’re Just Starting Out . . .
¨ Be open-minded and accept students as they are.
¨ Let students be in charge of something—choreography, warm-up or floor combinations, choosing music, etc. (Do not worry: In the end, you are always in charge!)
¨ Change your teaching style often, offer diversity in your classes and make sure that you are teaching developmentally appropriate skills and
¨ Keep your classroom rules and
policies simple, but reinforce them when needed. Be consistent.
¨ Be as flexible as possible because things will never go the way you plan.
¨ Treat your colleagues and custodians well. You will always need their help.
¨ Try not to let the cruel things students say get under your skin. They have wide mood swings and the next day they may be your best student.
—Mary Ann Laverty
¨ Establish a positive learning climate that fosters success for all students.
¨ Make a personal commitment to each student by taking the time to get to know their strengths and limitations.
¨ Set high expectations for your
students, create a safe and professional learning environment and model personal integrity.
¨ Become an advocate for dance
education and gain the support of school board members, school administrators, community leaders and state legislators.
Michelle Vellucci is a former Dance Teacher editor.
Photo by Nancy Brown, courtesy of Sanja Korman