At Luna Dance Institute, teachers learn new tools to bring dance into their classrooms.
Busy teachers are always looking for ways to enrich curriculum, and adding dance is a great option. But it can be daunting for a teacher to come up with movement-oriented lessons on her own. The Luna Dance Institute’s (LDI) annual summer workshop, held at Mills College in Oakland, California, pairs six dance artists with six classroom teachers for a six-day intensive. Now in its 11th year, the Summer Institute includes discussions about child development and learning theories, practical investigations on how to incorporate dance into state and national curriculum standards and a year of follow-up coaching from LDI staff. And, thanks to funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and others, Luna is able to offer the whole experience for free.
“My background is as a dance artist, but my straight job was teaching in classrooms,” says LDI’s energetic founder Patricia Reedy, who explains that the Summer Institute began as one of LDI’s professional development workshops in 2000. “It came about because my dance friends who took outreach programs into schools were saying to me, ‘Oh, no one cares about dance.’ They complained that the classroom teacher would sit in the back of the room not paying attention. And my classroom teacher friends were saying, ‘Sure, Patricia, I think dance is valuable, but frankly these dancers don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t have any classroom management skills, and they’re teaching developmentally inappropriate things.’ So I thought, if we’re going to do professional development, we should bring classroom teachers together with dance teachers and let them share and educate each other.”
A dance artist and classroom teacher can apply to the Summer Institute as a pair, or Luna faculty can match individuals according to their interests—a shared focus, for example, on curriculum development—or by the age group they teach. Each pair collaborates during the workshop, bouncing ideas off of each other, outlining broad and narrow goals for themselves for the coming year, giving each other feedback and generally offering insight into “how the other half thinks,” says Alisa Rasera, the Summer Institute program coordinator. “It’s really great for classroom teachers because they don’t have to be the leaders the whole time. They can take it in and reflect, write, dance and talk with other professionals who care about children and dance.”
Erica Rose Jeffrey, who has taught dance in studios and public schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, describes a typical Summer Institute workshop day as both exhausting and exhilarating, packed with improvisations, movement lessons and explorations, as well as practical “dress rehearsals” of various lessons. For example, participants might try a mirroring exercise in which one person flourishes a scarf and the partner, who’s empty-handed, embodies the fabric’s movement. In the classroom, the lesson, Jeffrey says, could be an entrée to any number of ideas, from use of imagination and nonverbal cues for young children to creative partnership and collaboration for older children, or even more complex dance concepts like shifting energy, balance and spatial relationships. “To work through it experientially helps me see right away what would work well for this group, or what I’d have to modify,” Jeffrey says.
In addition to movement work, participants read and discuss the latest theories on everything from brain development and learning styles to reflective practice. The workshop curriculum, which uses the National Dance Education Organization’s latest standards and paradigm as its frame, also emphasizes constructivist theories, which Reedy says dovetail well with dance education. “Constructivism says all learning happens because the individual constructs their own understanding,” she says. She explains that teaching students through rote memorization, for instance, doesn’t allow them to take ownership of learning in a way they can use in the future.
Emily Greene, who teaches a fifth-grade special education class, has found the constructivist approach appealing. “If you only have a superficial understanding of a concept, it’s difficult to manipulate that into something new, into actual knowledge,” Greene says. “My students especially learn in many more ways than a typical student, and concepts can be much more difficult for them to grasp quickly. Exploring an idea 20 different ways—try this movement high, try it low, try it fast or slow—makes it that much more meaningful and richer for them.”
After the workshop, Luna faculty provide a year of mentorship to help the participants apply what they’ve learned. “There are always chances for movement, but the challenge is in finding the time to work it into the curriculum,” Greene says. “Ultimately, the Summer Institute helped me see that I’m still a student.” DT
A former dancer, now teacher, Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photo: Courtesy of Luna Dance Institute