New York City’s highly successful Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance
As she looks back over her past nine years as director of dance for New York City public schools, Joan Finkelstein has a lot to be proud of. In a city that has no shortage of dance, bringing the artform to schoolchildren might seem easy. But her task wasn’t just to make sure all public school kids were exposed to dance. It was to provide students with a sequential, standards-based, arts-focused dance education. Now, almost a decade later, New York City students are delving deeply into choreography, technique, critique and analysis, documentation and dance history.
When she took the job, Finkelstein knew that she’d have a wealth of dance talent to work with. The trick was to give all the dance teachers working in the city’s schools a shared sense of direction. She began by forming a committee of dance educators and members of the city’s larger dance community to develop a Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance. The document provided public school dance teachers with a common reference point, structure and benchmarked dance goals specific enough to make sequential learning possible, yet broad enough to allow individual teachers to develop lessons based on their passions and strengths.
But encouraging a unified dance program to take root and grow took more than a document. It was necessary to gather the city’s far-flung dance teachers so they could learn from one another. Again Finkelstein formed a committee—this time to plan professional development workshops. Over the past nine years, 60 of these workshops have been given. “Dance teachers are often alone in their subject area in their schools,” says Finkelstein. “They need that bubbling up of ideas that comes from having a community, a shared language, connections.”
The most recent workshop, held in early June, focused on the hula and Polynesian culture. Teachers analyzed effective methods of learning and teaching the technique, including where to find additional resources and guest artists. The workshops also emphasize practices that are a priority for the Department of Education—backward curriculum design or the common core standards. Teachers come away armed with Blueprint-aligned tools, including lesson plans, strategies and assessments.
Thanks to the Blueprint, the city’s dance educators are also better able to assess their students, since, without shared goals and a sequential plan, it was difficult to meaningfully evaluate progress. High school students who have completed a dance major sequence, for instance, now take the NYC Comprehensive Dance Examination to evaluate performance, choreography, research and general dance knowledge. Those who pass (including a written test) and have at least 10 dance credits receive a Chancellor’s Arts Endorsed Diploma.
The Blueprint also helped the city secure two competitive grants in 2010, one of which, Investing in Innovation, was given to only three arts education organizations. The $5.5 million from both grants pays for a five-year study to develop assessment tools and strategies and to translate the results into effective classroom practices. “The question is how can data enlighten teachers about what their students need,” says Finkelstein. “For example, maybe your students are great at picking up combinations but can’t create work, or maybe they understand how to use space but not dynamics.”
The real success of the Blueprint is perhaps most evident in the increasing ranks of dance teachers. Since inception, the number of public school dance educators grew from 135 to more than 200—despite the economic downturn. Finkelstein is a tireless advocate in this regard, continually explaining dance’s value to principals whose hiring budgets are tight. She proactively sends NYC principals the resumés of all newly certified K–12 dance teachers and repeatedly follows up with any school leader who expresses interest. Once new teachers are hired, they are welcomed into the fold with both support and resources. Rookies receive two years of mentoring from an experienced dance teacher, subsidized continuing education and a tool chest that includes books on a variety of dance topics, DVDs, Move Cubes, a Laban chart and notation cards.
With this kind of success, one wonders what more Finkelstein might hope to achieve as she enters her second decade in the job. Not one to think small, her goal is to provide every primary public school child in the city with a high-quality, sequential dance education and every older child with the option of choosing dance in the upper grades. “It’s their right,” she says. “We are in danger of becoming a society divorced from our bodies. Dance isn’t only physical. It’s an expressive artform. It requires higher-order thinking, teamwork and effective, repetitive practice. Disciplined dance study builds grit, which is lauded as a prime component of success. Joy and grit—dance builds both.” DT
Janet Weeks is a former Dance Teacher editor who is earning a degree in early childhood special education from Hunter College.
Photos by Catherine Brikke, courtesy of NYC Department of Education
Though she had always been a mover, Diane Frank had taken few formal dance classes before college. In fact, she entered Ohio University’s theater department in 1966 planning to become a high school drama teacher. While there, though, she took class from Shirley Wimmer, founder of Ohio University’s School of Dance, who saw her potential and encouraged her to explore it. Now a dance lecturer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Frank understands how watching a student light up in a Cunningham or bharata natyam class, and encouraging the dancer to investigate the spark, can be richly rewarding for both teacher and student.
After earning her BFA in theater, Frank taught a dance class for non-majors at Ohio University. “I was only about half a step ahead of my students,” she says. Craving more dance knowledge, she earned her MA in dance at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, studying with Beverly Schmidt Blossom, a founding member of the Alwin Nikolais Dance Theatre. “I had lots of intention back then but was physically weak,” says Frank. Blossom helped her improve technically but, like Wimmer, never left creativity out of the process, a link Frank weaves into her own teaching. “Focusing on technique alone is like sharpening a pencil but never writing with it,” she says.
MA in hand, Frank was hired to teach at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she was part of a committee that booked visiting artists, including Carolyn Brown, who had just retired from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Brown suggested the university bring in Douglas Dunn next, and Frank was blown away. After Dunn left, Frank asked for a leave of absence. “After meeting Carolyn and Doug, I felt bogus as a teacher,” she says. “I realized I needed to know movement in my bones, rather than as a construct. I needed to learn a deeper body logic from Merce and Doug before I could teach well.”
She was offered a scholarship at the Cunningham Studio in New York and was soon dancing with Dunn’s company. “Both Merce and Doug taught me that class is an investigation,” says Frank. “Whatever Merce was examining in his choreography would find its way into his technique class.”
After three years at the Cunningham Studio, Frank asked Cunningham if she could teach. He replied, “You could try.” She taught at the studio for the next eight years and, at Cunningham’s request, she also taught technique and repertory in France at the American Center’s Atelier Cunningham.
Frank has been at Stanford University since 1988. Since the university offers a dance minor but no major, all of her students major in areas other than dance. She brings the larger dance world into the university through artistic collaborations and residency projects, and she promotes the idea that dance is research. “The studio is our lab,” she says, “and performance is a way to show the results of our investigation.” When students begin to choreograph, she doesn’t ask “What do you want to say?” but rather “What is your question?”
Even without a dance major, a number of Stanford students go on to dance professionally or earn dance MFAs at other colleges. And many return to Stanford to teach or set pieces. “They get something and they give back,” says Frank. “To be part of an effort that sustains the field is so motivating and satisfying.” DT
Photo courtesy of Stanford Drama
OTHER 2011 DT AWARDEES:
Help students deal with depression.
Not long ago, Jill Cook got a phone call from the office of Melissa Dobbs, director of the Metropolitan Fine Arts Center in Northern Virginia, concerning her daughter Katharine repeatedly not participating in dance class. Cook thanked them for calling and hung up. Then after thinking for a few seconds, she called back and said, “Listen, I have to let you know what’s going on.” Katharine (then 10 years old) had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that swings sufferers from the extremes of euphoria to deep despair. Being open about her daughter’s condition proved to be a good move. The studio staff responded with concern and understanding and found ways to support Katharine.
Dance training can push students to the limit, and many thrive in this challenging environment. But long hours, competitiveness and the drive toward perfection may send susceptible students over the edge. “Depression is not caused by the dance world,” says Barbara Kravitz, a New York City–based psychoanalyst who danced with Pennsylvania Ballet, “but the profession’s challenges can bring it on if there is a predisposition or vulnerability.” The good news is that dance teachers who are aware of the symptoms and sensitive to the needs of those who suffer can encourage their students’ mental health.
Depression affects 8 to 10 percent of adolescents and is especially common in post-pubescent girls and gay or bisexual youths, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. But mental illness can be tricky to spot since it’s often mistaken for typical preteen and teen moodiness. If a student is late for class and out of sorts now and then, she is probably just having a bad day. But if she exhibits some of the following symptoms for two weeks or more, it’s a cause for concern.
- Withdrawal from social situations (e.g., sitting alone during rehearsal breaks and between classes)
- Agitation, difficulty concentrating
- Weight loss or gain
- Change in appetite and/or sleep habits
- Frequent complaints about headaches and/or stomach aches
- A change in friends
- Becoming easily discouraged
- Signs of self-injury (If you think a student is purposefully cutting themselves, seek help from a psychiatric professional right away.)
So what should you do if you suspect a student might be dangerously depressed? “If you teach in a public school, go to the school counselor,” says Cook, who, in addition to being Katharine’s mom, is assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. Explain your concerns to school personnel who are trained to deal with psychological issues and may have access to a more complete picture of the student’s mental health. “A public school can be held liable if you don’t go through the proper channels,” she says.
If you teach in a studio, it might be okay to speak with the student privately. You could ask, “You don’t seem like yourself. You seem so tired these days. Are you okay?” Or pull a parent aside to say, “Mary has been late recently and that’s not like her.” It’s good for the dancer to know you’re empathetic, concerned and available if she wants to talk. But before approaching the student or family directly, consult with the studio director or owner and consider seeking advice from a trained mental health professional.
Though dance teachers aren’t counselors, they can provide crucial support for students struggling with depression. At Katharine’s studio, teachers are especially mindful of her condition during long recital week rehearsals. “Katharine burns out and some warning sign always comes up. This year she developed a psychogenic cough,” says Cook. “They keep an eye on her and let her go home early if she needs to, or sit out or get a drink of water.”
Anne L. Wennerstrand, who became a psychotherapist after years as a dancer (she performed with Laura Dean and Dancers, among other groups), advises, “Be willing to be flexible. Don’t be too wedded to a plan. If the child is close to tears, don’t keep pushing.” And be especially attuned when a dancer is feeling challenged.
“Difficulty with a movement or step can shake a dancer’s self-esteem,” says Kravitz. “Think about how you can help her through to mastery in a constructive way.” It can seem like a depressed student is just not trying or has a bad attitude, but keep in mind that, in this case, the behavior isn’t willful.
While sensitivity is helpful, being overprotective can be counter-productive. “Competition is a normal part of dance,” says Cook. “Keep an eye on kids as they struggle with it, but you can't protect them completely." DT
Janet Weeks is pursuing dance education for special needs children.
Photo: Metropolitan Fine Arts Center staff found ways to support Katharine Cook when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (photo by and courtesy of Glenn Cook)
A dance class at Xavier College Preparatory High School
After a few weeks working in a tough, inner-city high school in Salt Lake City, Becky Dyer realized her years of teaching dance in universities and higher-income school districts hadn’t prepared her to meet her new students’ needs. In this unfamiliar setting, gang fights broke out during her class, and even when there wasn’t outright violence, the students were angry and rebellious, and racial tensions ran high. She’d reached the bottom of her bag of pedagogical tricks and was still, by her account, “failing terribly.” So instead of avoiding her students’ intense personal needs, Dyer began planning classes that let students voice their frustrations and fears and explore them using dance.
Before long, disruptive and disinterested students began to participate in class. In her dance journal, one student wrote, “I learned to express my feelings without yelling or crying.” Another wrote, “When I did other peoples’ movement, it made me want to know who they were inside.” By engaging in dance exercises driven by their own experiences, the students grew both artistically and socially.
The results were so positive that Dyer decided to examine and develop them in a doctoral program. Eight years later, after earning her PhD and becoming a full-time dance faculty member at Arizona State University, she launched the Arizona Dance Educators Action Research Project to apply her approach more broadly. Dyer and the eight Phoenix-area high school dance teachers involved in the project have been working together for three years to design a curriculum that develops good people, as well as good dancers, and is flexible enough to serve teens from a variety of backgrounds.
The teachers began by creating a list of social and emotional goals that they believed could be fostered through dance, including improved self-awareness, confidence, empathy for alternative perspectives, judgment and moral reasoning skills. They then developed an overarching framework to give lessons a logical progression. The first unit focuses on identity and self-image; the next on relationships with others; the third on differences, tensions and resolving conflicts; and the last on questioning and transforming perspectives and world views. The teachers try different approaches to address these issues in their classes and meet once a month to discuss the results.
The completed curriculum will include goals, units and sample lesson plans. But Dyer hopes that teachers who use it will adapt the components to fit their students’ individual needs and concerns. Below, two of the curriculum’s developers discuss how they have applied it successfully at two very different schools.
South Mountain High School
Low-income public school
Upon discovering that nine students in the school’s magnet dance program were pregnant, dance teacher Susan Griffin decided to create a piece that would require her students—she happened to have a class of all girls—to investigate teen pregnancy through personal stories. She hoped it would give them a better understanding of the issues, facts and realities surrounding teen pregnancy, and a clearer sense of their own personal beliefs and responses to it.
Her students interviewed teenage mothers and, with Griffin’s guidance, researched teen pregnancy statistics. They used all of this information to create movement. In a phrase about how it would feel to hear they were pregnant, the dancers, starting at their centers, reached out for help. A later section that focused on caring for a baby began with a gentle cradling movement and evolved into a hands-on-head gesture of anguish. Griffin says that while her students were working on the piece, they thought about pregnancy in a deeper way, and the exercise made them more aware of the feelings of pregnant classmates.
Griffin also used movement when a feud developed between dance students from two different racial groups. As the anger between the groups grew, she realized the students simply had no filter; when provoked, they responded instantly. So she used an improvisation exercise to help them practice controlling their impulses [see sidebar]. The exercise helped build bridges. Eventually, some students were able to choose a partner from the opposing group when instructed to work with someone new. And recently, when Griffin surveyed them on the topic, almost all the students reported that they were now able to work well with any other classmate.
Xavier College Preparatory High School
Private Catholic girls school
Mary Anne Fernandez Herding and Kelly Martell Scovel, Xavier’s dance teachers, say their students struggle with common teenage challenges: peer pressure, family break-ups, bullying and, in particular, competition. “Girls are naturally cliquey and tend to exclude peers,” Herding says. So she and Scovel have developed dance class practices designed to encourage students to connect with each other and to help each student feel like an important part of a community. Scovel’s classes begin with a designated “circle time,” when students sit together and talk about how they are, which she says helps them start class unified. And both teachers find times during the warm-up for partner work, which facilitates interaction.
Last year, inspired by a lesson Dyer designed for her college students, Scovel created what she called the “I Am” project, which encouraged her dancers to explore their individuality while simultaneously recognizing points of connection with peers. Each dancer began by describing herself in written words and created movement inspired by the writing. Scovel helped students recognize adjectives, feelings and experiences they had in common and created a unison dance phrase based on these. They put all the material together to create a performance piece [see sidebar].
Scovel believes her students are benefiting from being given more opportunities to connect (though the results seem subtler than Griffin’s). But the most significant shift has been a personal one. “I feel a lot more connected to my students now,” she says. “By giving them a bigger role, I’ve become more of a facilitator. I feel like I’m part of the group rather than just the leader.”
“Being a dance teacher gives you a privilege other teachers don’t have,” says Scovel. “You can teach your subject—good dance technique and artistry—while also using it to explore things that are more meaningful.” For more information on the project, e-mail Becky.Dyer@asu.edu. DT
In the Classroom
When Susan Griffin’s students were involved in a racially motivated conflict, she used the following improv exercise to help them practice impulse control:
- Griffin asked students to improvise a particular shape, such as a wide or a tall shape.
- She asked them to create shapes again, but told them not to move on their first impulse—to wait a beat and use the second idea that came to them.
- She paired up her students and had them improvise a movement dialogue. The first student created a shape and her partner immediately responded with another. The resulting duets looked confrontational because students tended to respond to what they thought the movement meant. A raised hand might lead a partner to block it, for example.
- They improvised movement dialogues again, but the responding partner waited a beat before creating his or her shape. Griffin gave suggestions like, “Think about using a shape that contrasts with what your partner did.” As she pointed out to the students, the second duets were much richer, choreographically, because students responded to the movement shape and quality rather than its meaning. For example, if their partner moved percussively, the response might be sinuous.
- Griffin had each student switch partners numerous times, so that eventually they had to pair up with students from the opposing side of the conflict.
Kelly Scovel noticed a lot of competition among her students, so she developed the “I Am” project to show them that they’re more alike than they may have thought. Here’s how it works:
- Each student begins by writing 10 descriptive words about herself.
- Have the students create a movement for each of their words and string them together to make short solos.
- To point out commonalities, tally up adjectives used by multiple people (i.e., “Caring—12, Smart—6”) and create a unison dance phrase based on these words.
- Have each student write a reflective essay in which they answer questions about their individuality, like “What is my best quality?” “What am I most proud of?” “What stereotypes are placed on me?” “Have I ever stereotyped someone else?” and “What do my parents expect of me?”
- Without saying who wrote what, copy sentences from each essay on the board.
- Have the students choose a couple of sentences they connect with that aren’t their own, and create movement to represent the words.
- Craft a performance piece using dance phrases spawned by the exercise.
Janet Weeks is editor of the Dance Magazine College Guide.
Photo by Mary K. Farrington-Lorch, courtesy of Xavier College Prep
Briana Rainey, a senior at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, never dreamed her dance pedagogy course would lead to work with a demolition crew. But to fulfill one of the class requirements, she rode to work for several days in the back of a pickup truck with men who supported their families by performing backbreaking labor without benefits like health insurance or the promise of steady employment. “Many of my co-workers talked about their daughters’ love of dance or about other activities they could no longer participate in due to lack of resources,” says Rainey. “Until then, I always thought of dance as an easily accessible activity because it was always available to me.”
This is just the kind of realization the course’s dance professor, Doug Risner, had in mind. His pedagogy course is designed to take students beyond their familiar range of experiences. Mandatory for all dance majors at Wayne State, the course incorporates readings and class observations to introduce different points of view and approaches to teaching. Students are also required to take on an experiential project, like Rainey’s. Risner’s goal is to develop reflective, empathetic educators able to work in various settings and with diverse populations. “It gets students thinking about their responsibility for other people’s learning,” says Risner.
Since more standard pedagogical fare like teaching methods and classroom management are covered in a separate course, Risner is free to focus on building what he calls personal pedagogies. He begins by asking students to examine their own histories for insight into effective teaching methods they’ve encountered as students. But much of the class focuses on the experiences of others.
Throughout the semester, students explore racial, gender, socioeconomic and sexual orientation differences and how mainstream education sometimes unwittingly adopts assumptions. The students also do field observations in various educational settings—public schools, recreational centers and other colleges—to compare different points of view, teaching styles and students. Students are graded on summary and position papers they write in response to the readings, on the notes they take during observations and for their participation in class discussions.
But to give his students a physical sense of what it’s like to live in another person’s skin, Risner has them step out of the classroom to complete what he calls a social immersion project. His syllabus suggests things like volunteering in a homeless shelter, wearing the same thrift-store-bought clothes for one week or spending just 74 cents per meal for seven days.
Before taking Risner’s course, senior dance education student Felicia Rose did some teaching in the Detroit public schools. “I remember a teacher telling me that it’s hard because you don’t know if these children had breakfast or even dinner,” says Rose. “You can have a perfectly well-behaved student one day and the next day they are angry and emotional. I thought she was crazy.” But after limiting herself to 74 cents per meal for a week, Rose had a physical sense of what such deprivation can do. “It made me realize how much hunger can affect your daily patterns, emotions and behavior,” she says.
Rose also saw how a limited budget affects the quality of diet. “The first day I was buying food, I realized you can’t get all those fresh fruits and vegetables or buy the name brand just because it’s low-fat,” says Rose. “People keep talking about children being obese, but how can we stop it when cheap foods are fattening and full of preservatives?”
Risner says when students first hear of the social immersion project, many worry about whether they’ll be able to do it. He admits that completing it is difficult. “I struggle to help my students digest it and to support them intellectually and emotionally,” he says. To receive a grade, each must submit written reflections on what they learned and present their findings to the class. “They are often brought to tears as they present their work,” says Risner.
And though Risner considers commitment to the project when grading, a student’s analysis of why they weren’t able to complete it to the letter often more than makes up for their straying.
This was true for Rainey. She undertook her project with the help of her father, who runs a construction company demolition department and employs men from his neighborhood as laborers. During her stint with the crew, they did some sewer work and mold removal. “A few times I had to leave the area because my father didn’t want me exposed to unsanitary conditions,” says Rainey. Reflections on the different treatment she received were part of her final project.
Similarly, Rose admits to splurging on a couple of bottles of water after dance class and not counting them in her 74 cents per meal plan. “The saddest thing about it is if I was really in this situation, then I would have just spent my gas money or a part of my mortgage payment,” she says. DT
Janet Weeks is editor of Dance Magazine College Guide and a contributing editor to Dance Teacher.
Ohio State University
Little brings John Giffin, professor in the department of dance at the Ohio State University, more joy than sitting in a dark theater watching his senior students perform. “Over four years, I’ve watched them grow from teenagers into young men and women, and it’s so rewarding to see,” he says. “It’s not just their artistry, but their personalities and values that develop.”
Giffin has been an integral part of OSU’s dance department since the early 1980s. This will be his last year attending the end-of-year concert as a full-time professor, since he’s soon to retire. But he has agreed to continue sharing his expertise with students on a part-time basis.
When Giffin first joined the OSU faculty in 1982, he taught ballet and Labanotation, a written system used to record choreography. Over the years his course load has expanded to include Performance Techniques, a class he co-teaches with faculty from the department of theater. And through his own interests and research, he has developed a course in dance theater and another on American social dance, which attract students from outside and within the department.
The diversity of Giffin’s course offerings reflects the wide range of dance styles on his resumé. He began taking tap classes as a child in Akron, Ohio—but once he saw Nureyev perform, he found the best ballet teacher in town and immediately enrolled in her classes. After high school, he attended Juilliard, where he studied with Antony Tudor, José Limón and Anna Sokolow. “I don’t know how I got into Juilliard,” he says, “because I really didn’t know left from right. But while I was there, my eyes and ears got bigger and my mouth got smaller. So I learned a lot!”
After college, Giffin danced with several companies, including the Pittsburgh Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Eventually he moved to Europe, becoming a founding member of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal and working with other European opera ballets. He returned to the US in 1979 and was dance captain for the 1980 Broadway revival of Brigadoon. He also toured with Agnes de Mille’s Heritage Dance Theatre.
But it was his longstanding interest in Labanotation that eventually pulled Giffin to OSU, where he earned an MA in dance in the early 1980s. OSU houses the only outpost of the New York–based Dance Notation Bureau, an organization devoted to facilitating the restaging of works using Labanotation. As his retirement approaches, Giffin is taking special pleasure in setting Tudor’s Dark Elegies on a graduate student using the Labanotation score.
“I’m so thankful for all the people who have taught me over the years,” he says, “and grateful that I’ve been able to share what I’ve learned. Though dance is a profession that takes everything, it gives back just as much.” Giffin believes that statement rings as true for his students as it does for him. “No matter what they do after college, whether they dance or not, they emerge as glorious people. Being a part of that process is very rewarding.”
Photo by Will Shively