It Takes a Village
High school dance teachers forge a collaborative model
For the past year, Michelle Perosi and Kathleen Flynn have donned hard hats as often as dance shoes. As dance teachers at Union County Vocational-Technical School Academy for Performing Arts, they have witnessed firsthand the construction of a state-of-the-art performance complex for the high school in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Slated for completion this month, the building’s careful balance of academic and performance space (it will house a theater, two dance studios and a sound recording studio, along with academic classrooms and a science lab) demonstrates the academy’s mission to provide specialized performing arts training in a rigorous academic environment.
An equal commitment to academics and artistic excellence has inspired more than the shape of the school’s new home. It has led the academy’s founders to build off-campus bridges linking students with professional dancers—and with a nearby university, where, through a unique agreement, the academy’s seniors can simultaneously earn high school and college credits.
Founded in 2008, the academy currently has 101 students, including 29 dance majors. Applicants must audition and are also evaluated based on grade point average and standardized test scores. “We want to prepare the whole child. That’s why we preach strong academics,” says principal Scott Rubin.
The first class of 47 dance and theatre arts students will be juniors this fall. Through an innovative agreement, they will leave campus for their senior year and take a full freshman college course load at nearby Kean University, including a concentration in their performing arts major. “It’s a great transition for college, and it will strengthen them dance-wise as well,” Flynn says. Though Kean does not offer a BFA in dance, Perosi and Flynn are putting their backgrounds in curriculum development (Perosi founded the full-time dance program at Ocean County Vocational-Technical School in 2001, and Flynn is former head of dance faculty at the Middlesex County School of Performing Arts in East Brunswick, NJ) to work with university administration to create a strong dance pathway within Kean’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.
With the help of a dedicated advisory board of performing arts professionals, the academy also gives students access to the professional dance world through an ongoing residency with the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company. At least once a month, Artistic Director Carolyn Dorfman conducts a master class in modern dance technique and composition. She also sets pieces on the students and her company performs in the academy’s end-of-the-year concert. “To have the consistency of a residency that lasts all year is wonderful,” Flynn says. “Carolyn really knows our students. It’s like having an extended faculty.”
Perosi and Flynn would like to build on the idea of extended faculty by making connections to the area’s private dance studios. Academy dancers are encouraged to take 10 hours of dance class off-campus each week and Perosi and Flynn purposely schedule no rehearsals or classes after 3 pm, so that students can take classes at local studios. “We are not a threat to their programs,” says Perosi. “We are here to support what they do.”
Flynn and Perosi are excited about their roles in developing the program from its inception. “This is much different from being hired as a dance teacher somewhere and then being told what the philosophy is,” says Flynn. “Michelle and I are writing the curriculum and crafting the program. We want to teach the students to be artists. And the new building will be an artists’ home.” DT
Darrah Carr is a New York–based choreographer, educator and writer active in both the Irish and modern dance communities.
Photo by Dylan Scalora, courtesy of Union County Vocational-Technical School Academy for Performing Arts.