A Global Approach
The International Baccalaureate launches an intercultural dance curriculum for high school students.
Of course, dancers use their feet. But can you imagine movement that only uses the feet? What about an entire dance where the performers only use their hands? How do the hands and feet instigate larger movements? These are the kinds of questions guiding the structured improvisations of dance students at Newark Academy, a private middle and high school in Livingston, New Jersey, and one of 1,300 schools across the country certified to participate in one of the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) programs.
“The IB curriculum encourages students to be risk-takers and to embrace other cultures, by developing a world view outside of themselves and beyond their dance background before they came to Newark Academy,” says Yvette Luxenberg, the school’s dance director. In the improv exercise, for example, some students use hand movements that draw from their study of bharata natyam, a style of classical Indian dance. “Picking a theme such as ‘hands and feet’ for a structured improvisation forces the students out of their comfort zones and teaches them that dance is more than just doing lots of pirouettes or getting your leg by your ear,” she says.
Under Luxenberg’s direction, dance students at Newark Academy have been part of a pilot program for the last three years, testing the IB’s new dance curriculum before its official launch next month. The dance program will complement the IB’s overall goals: to produce critical thinkers and promote understanding and respect for difference.
Founded in 1968, the IB is a nonprofit organization that prepares students for life in a rapidly globalizing world by using a rigorous, intercultural curriculum. The IB currently partners with 3,264 schools in 141 countries, each of which has undergone an extensive application and certification process. An IB school can choose to follow any or all of the organization’s three academic programs, including the two-year Diploma Programme for students ages 16–19, which is designed to prepare students for success in college.
The Diploma Programme has long included music, theater and visual arts, grouped together as one of six academic subject areas that comprise a student’s overall education. In 1999, following requests from numerous IB schools to add dance, the organization assembled an international team of half a dozen experts (including Sharon Friedler of Swarthmore College, Ze’eva Cohen of Princeton University and Grant Strate, formerly of Simon Fraser University) to begin planning a curriculum. “We started with an empty sheet of paper and asked, ‘What would be a satisfying dance course from an international perspective?’” says Caroline Harman, acting curriculum area head for the arts division. “We did not want a hierarchical perspective. We wanted to be clear that dance is dance across the world.”
The resulting three-pronged curriculum includes performance, world dance studies and composition and analysis. Over the course of the two-year program, students must perform in one to three pieces choreographed either by their dance teacher or a guest artist. They also have to create two to three dances themselves. Finally, the students complete a research project comparing two different dance cultures—one they are familiar with and one new to them—which culminates in a 1,500- or 2,500-word written report. The IB encourages teachers to support the students’ research with master classes, interviews with practitioners from diverse dance cultures or field trips to concerts, workshops and festivals. “Understanding that dance is an academic subject that involves scholarly work and has questions and answers really opens the students up,” Luxenberg says. “They realize that, in the same way that you study math or science, you can study dance.”
Dance teachers assess their students’ dance performances using IB rubrics. The evaluations are then checked by external IB examiners, who also review the performances by DVD and grade the essays, which ensures fair and accurate evaluations across a variety of cultural contexts.
Recognizing that different dance cultures will have different needs, the IB leaves decisions regarding dance teacher certification requirements up to individual schools. However, Luxenberg, who has a BA in dance and Spanish from Wesleyan University and an MFA in dance from Hollins/ADF, says teachers will feel most comfortable with the curriculum if they have a strong technical base in a few styles, experience with research and a good foundation in composition. “Teachers find it challenging and rewarding in equal measure,” says Sharon Friedler, director of Swarthmore College’s dance program and the IB’s chief examiner for dance. To help, the IB maintains an online curriculum center where participating teachers can share dialogue, ask questions and provide feedback on their programs. “It requires a great deal of imagination in order to open your students’ eyes to a wide range of dance styles.”
Participation also requires a sizable amount of organizational work. “It’s my responsibility to guide students through the program, to remind them of the particular requirements and to make sure they’ve completed the right amount of choreographic material,” Luxenberg says. “I make a DVD for each student and post numerous notices on the bulletin board.” But these efforts provide rewards for both the students and the teachers. Luxenberg says she can use the videotaped performances to show her dancers what the examiners are looking for. And when they complete the program, the students get DVD copies of their work. “At the end of the two years, they have this wonderful gift of all the work they’ve done,” Luxenberg says.
Friedler expects that interest in the dance program will grow exponentially as teachers and students realize the benefits of the IB curriculum. “Students learn to respect and also to be in awe of the number of dance cultures there are in the world,” Harman says. “The IB dance curriculum offers a way for them to think through their body and to link their body with their mind and spirit.” DT
Darrah Carr is a New York–based choreographer, educator and writer, active in both the Irish and modern dance communities.
Photoby Alex Cena, courtesy Yvette Luxenberg