Learning the Rhythms of a School
A Minnesota after-school tap program thrives.
In fall 2008, Ellen Keane walked into North End Elementary School in a low-income area of St. Paul, Minnesota, with a mission to teach tap to kids who couldn’t afford lessons. The principal at the time, Hamilton Bell, embraced the idea. “He was thrilled when I said that I wanted to write a grant in order to launch a tap program at his school,” Keane says.
While the initial meeting was easy, the fundraising process took a long time. Working with two staff members from the school, Keane applied to five organizations before finally receiving a $2,000 grant from Target in July 2010. “I never would have thought that it would have taken that long. I thought that we’d be in the school within six months!” Keane recalls. Last October, with funding secured, Keane and her sister, Cathy Keane Wind, launched twice-weekly tap classes for 20 students as part of North End’s after-school enrichment program. Additional support came from the Dancing Fair, a local shoe warehouse that donated tap shoes for every student.
The sisters, who co-direct the St. Paul–based Keane Sense of Rhythm tap company, intend to develop a long-term relationship with North End, which means that their current students—second- and third-graders—have the potential to learn extended skills over time.
“Consistency is what we are looking for, rather than a one-off tap class that a kid gets to take once in their life,” Keane says. “Plus, if we start when they are young enough, even if they have a tough urban skin, we can still get through and develop a relationship.” The school administrators agree, and hope the program will continue to grow.
“The ultimate goal is to have tap be part of the curriculum,” says Shannon McParland, a curriculum specialist and site-coordinator of extended day programs at North End. “It helps the students develop socially and academically. What they learn in that class can carry them through life.”
Both sisters have more than 20 years of experience teaching dance to children in various settings, from studios to the local arts high school. Keane is also licensed in Minnesota as a community expert, which means that she can teach public school children in an unsupervised classroom. After working out scheduling logistics, the school has taken a hands-off approach, leaving the sisters free to design their own program.
Establishing personal relationships with the students has been crucial. North End has a diverse population and most of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. “Every child in the room needs something special from us,” Keane says. “That has abated somewhat as we learn their names and spend time with them before class. For them just to know that we are coming back and that they can count on us has been huge.” The sisters also boost morale by presenting each child with a certificate of achievement at the end of the semester.
The personal approach is proving successful. “The tap program is one of the only after-school programs where the students are consistently there,” McParland says. “Their attendance speaks volumes.” The sisters have also brought in an assistant, Tony Farrar, a 22-year-old African-American tap dancer, which McParland says has helped strengthen the program. “The kids look up to him as a role model—it’s what so many of them are looking for in their lives.”
Keane admits that she didn’t expect it would take three experienced teachers to teach 20 kids, but establishing appropriate dance class etiquette has been a challenge. “I was shocked on the first day. I knew that that it would be chaotic, because lots of first classes are like that. But it was amazing to see how long it took us to get them to listen. It wasn’t anything like what I expected,” she says. Keane Wind has found it beneficial to learn the school’s language for behavioral guidelines. “The teachers at North End talk a lot about respecting each other’s space,” she says, “which has been helpful language to establish boundaries in dance class.”
When students show good behavior, the sisters conclude class with dance battles. (Keane Wind came up with the idea after seeing students in Slayton, MN, battle while she was doing a guest-teaching residency.) “The kids love to show off for each other,” Keane Wind says. “They always ask to battle, but we hold off until the end of class and use it as a motivator.”
A typical class also includes technique, improvisation and tap history, which allows the sisters to tie in the school’s overall learning standards. “Our class applies to social studies, for example, because we discuss American history as seen through the eyes of tap dancers,” Keane explains. “We talk about the great migration after the Emancipation Proclamation, when African Americans moved to northern cities and met Irish immigrants in overcrowded tenements.”
North End faculty are working with the sisters to devise rubrics that demonstrate how their tap class meets standards not only in social studies but also in math, where there’s an overlap with counting and subdivision. In order to ensure that the program continues, North End’s current principal, Barbara Evangelist, has put Keane on staff and given her a small salary. A recent grant from the Minnesota Regional Arts Council has also supported the program through this spring. “We are finally doing what we are supposed to be doing,” Keane says. “This feels deep and meaningful.” DT
Darrah Carr is a New York City–based choreographer, educator and writer, active in both the Irish and modern dance communities.
Photo by Wickham Samuel, courtesy of North End and Franklin Elementary School