Preserving ancient Sri Lankan dance in a traditional Western studio
Young dancers file into the CityDance studio in Bethesda, Maryland, and raise their palms to their foreheads, lower them to their chests, gesture out to their teacher and then plié deeply to touch the floor. With this small blessing—to first creator, gods, and teachers and parents, and to the floor/earth on which they’ll dance—the 18 students sanctify their dance space. Teacher Asanga Domask then leads them in a vigorous warm-up to a soundtrack of various popular music.
Domask is an expert in the ancient Kandyan and Low Country dances of her homeland, Sri Lanka, and committed to preserving this fast disappearing artform. At CityDance, she is building a Sri Lankan dance program amid the ballet and modern dance classes the studio is known for. She instructs students in the techniques, history and traditions that her own gurus, including Chitrasena and Vajira Dias, warned in 2005 would disappear within a generation.
Kandyan and Low Country dance are endangered due to the passing of 20th-century dance masters who revived the forms after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, and global trends that water down these unique dances. “Younger dancers tend to do more commercialized versions, and both the costumes and movement don’t hold on to the traditions,” Domask says. “I see dances there now with a lot of influence from salsa, flamenco, contemporary dance, both in the movement and the music. But when you go to a world stage and state this is Sri Lankan dance, no one would know it’s not traditional.”
Domask studied both Kandyan dance, called Sri Lanka’s most refined form, and Low Country (pahatharata natum), folk dances from the southern region, as a child and adolescent. After earning a degree in economics at Mary Baldwin College, she returned to what she loved most. Not far akin from Indian forms like bharata natyam, Kandyan dance was connected to the royal court as early as the fourth century BC. It features a percussive base, with flat-footed steps embellished by curving, swirling and undulating arms, wrists and hands. The hand gestures aren’t as complex and varied as in Indian forms. There’s an emphasis on limberness and a common stance, the wide and deep second position plié, which shows the form’s earthly rootedness. Kandyan dance has 24 steps and 18 classical vannams (specific rhythms), representing animal movements, which advanced students must master.
As the four-year-old program grows, Domask hopes to attract students from the conservatory program and beyond. One, Natalie Pagenstecher, a 17-year-old high school senior from Bethesda, studied and performs with SerendibDance Company, Domask’s performing troupe. “Asanga is one of the more inspiring women I have ever met,” Pagenstecher says. “She’s taken on this daunting task of preserving and providing a home for this ancient cultural tradition. To get to work with someone who’s done that and built her life around it, that’s beautiful to me.” DT
Lisa Traiger writes on dance and the performing arts from Rockville, Maryland.
Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson, courtesy of Asanga Domask
When Tori Rogoski opened her studio in 2001, she decided to model her curriculum on that of a university dance program. As an undergrad, she had loved her experience at University of Wisconsin–Madison and wanted to pass along the holistic approach of college-level instruction to younger students. This means that, in addition to teaching daily technique classes, Rogoski and the six part-time teachers of Dance Education Center give lectures and instruction on anatomy, healthy lifestyles, dance history and the creative process. She emphasizes a ballet foundation, requiring two ballet classes a week, but otherwise allows the students to explore whatever genres or styles they want. One thing, however, is conspicuously absent. DEC does not offer participation in dance competitions.
It seems a bold move considering the way competition pervades current entertainment culture. From local talent showcases, to traveling circuit competitions and international ballet events like Youth America Grand Prix, to television shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” dance competition is a $2 billion industry, according to the Association of Dance Conventions & Competitions. And yet, it reflects only a small percentage of the overall dance student population. For instance, competition dancers often comprise as little as 15 percent of total studio enrollment (see sidebar). There are plenty of school directors who forego competition completely, without sacrificing business success or opportunities for their dancers.
There’s no question that competitions can broaden a young dancer’s experience. They meet dancers, choreographers and teachers beyond their home communities and gain new perspective about what is possible. And performing next to winning dancers can be a compelling motivation to up one’s game onstage. But for some dancers, the added stress comes at too great a price. This was the case with Rogoski, whose personal childhood competition experience is reflected in her decision as a studio owner not to compete. “Being a perfectionist made it harder for me,” she says. “I always felt I was being judged, when dance should be the place where you don’t need to think about other things.”
An alternative that has worked well for students of her Stevens Point, Wisconsin–based school is a shared three-day intensive organized jointly by Rogoski and two dance-educator colleagues based in Chicago and Minnesota. DEC opens its space to the group of 30–38 dancers, and faculty and students serve as host families for the visiting students. They split into two groups for classes and then come together for a large master-class experience. There’s plenty of opportunity for the dancers to make friends, and on Sunday, they do a “dance share” to show what they’ve learned over the weekend.
Sometimes, the competition decision is a matter of market research. For nearly a decade before opening Dancer’s Extension in Saluda, North Carolina, Sonya Monts had taught at another studio that emphasized competitions. But when it came to starting her own business four years ago, she decided her rural North Carolina community would not support a competition studio model. She says students “didn’t want to be on competition teams, perhaps because they wanted to do other activities, too, or their families simply couldn’t afford it.” She was committed to being inclusive and, with all the extra costs associated with competitions, including entry fees, travel and costumes, she hated to see many in her working-class community left out. “Competition does work for some people, and they thrive on it,” she says. “For me as a mom and a dance teacher, though, it is just not necessary. You can learn the art of dance without the added stress of competition.”
Of course, one of the best arguments in favor of competition is that it gives student dancers much-needed performance opportunities. Rogoski admits she works hard to give stage time to her 175 dancers. The opportunities come through community-based performances, a spring showcase and performing groups for her more advanced dancers. She is proud that her students are giving back to their community by performing at social and cultural events for children, the elderly and other diverse audiences.
Most of the choreography is created by DEC faculty, but every year Rogoski brings in a guest artist. Last year it was a former professor from UW–Madison, and this year a former teacher who now dances with Scorpius Dance Theatre in Arizona—these choices demonstrate a preference for solid training and strong education credentials over celebrity status. “I’m always trying to bring in someone,” she says, “because it’s a challenge to get exposure for the kids.”
Rogoski offers herself as an example that a studio can survive and thrive without going the competition route. But she points out the decision is an individual one to be arrived at after clarifying business and teaching goals and developing a mission statement. For her, the absence of the rigorous schedule of technique and rehearsals necessary to prepare for the yearly competition circuit makes it easier to focus on artistry and getting to know her students personally. Plus, without the pressure of trophies, “kids can be kids,” without getting overwhelmed by performance and competition anxiety. Certainly her dancers are no less serious about dance, and many of them go on to pursue dance degrees in college. “I feel my number-one job is to help my students become really strong, both physically and as people,” she says.
And what if the child or their parents think they’re missing out on the competition element? Monts says this really hasn’t been an issue. Parents choose studios that are right for their family’s philosophy, she says. Those who want their children to gain benefits from competing will find a school to suit their child’s needs. DT
Lisa Traiger writes frequently on dance from the Washington, DC, suburbs.
5 Ways to Rock Your Recreational Program
When the yearly recital rolls around at The Dance Studio of Fresno, owner Sue Sampson-Dalena takes a page from the Hollywood book for making a grand entrance. Beneath a massive sign showcasing the studio logo, students pose on a red carpet in front of a themed step-and-repeat backdrop, and parents capture the moment for posterity. Sampson-Dalena first introduced the idea two years ago for the studio’s 30th anniversary and says it’s been a huge hit ever since. “Everyone likes to feel important and glamorous,” she says.
That sentiment also speaks to her philosophy, overall. Whether a student is a member of the Extreme Edge traveling company, the Jumpstart local competition team or a recreational dancer, she wants all dancers to understand they deserve the spotlight. “It’s so important to make your rec students feel like they’re part of your school and part of your team,” she says, “even if they only come a few times per week.”
This “everyone’s a star” approach is also a matter of smart business. Sampson-Dalena is acutely aware that recreational students comprise roughly 85 percent of her clientele. (Out of 800 total enrollment, 125 dancers participate on the competition teams, with 50 on Extreme Edge and 75 on the Jumpstart team.) “When you’re talking about financial success, the bigger your rec department, the better,” she says, explaining her reasoning like this: Students receive steeper discounts the more classes they enroll in. So someone taking eight classes weekly is essentially paying much less per class than a dancer who attends once or twice a week.
With all the time and energy it takes to support a competition team, Sampson-Dalena knows it can be all too easy to let that take priority. But, in order for a studio to thrive, it’s crucial to ensure that all dancers feel invested and have a great experience. Here, she shares the approach that has been key to her studio’s longevity.
1 Be strategic with class times and structure. When scheduling, give prime time priority to rec classes. “At the Dance Teacher Summit [where Sampson-Dalena presents seminars on best business practices], a lot of studio owners tell me they’ve made the mistake of giving away all their best class times to the dance team kids,” she says. “I understand they’re trying to provide opportunities to train and improve in order to be competitive, but they’re also giving away optimum times to families who aren’t paying the optimum price.” To avoid this, she makes sure her 5:30 pm class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday is filled with recreational students.
2 Measure progress and skill attainment uniformly. Sampson-Dalena maintains a syllabus for all classes, so that parents can easily keep track of learning goals. “Parents really like the fact that we have a syllabus for every single level; it helps them see the value when we say, ‘This is what we expect your child to master by the end of the year,’” she says.
3 Find ways to give recognition. At The Dance Studio of Fresno, a student of the month often has their picture posted in-studio and on the website. “Teachers nominate different students whom they feel deserve recognition,” says Sampson-Dalena. “We make a big deal out of it.” Her staff also snaps candid photos of rec classes to be posted on the studio’s Instagram and Facebook pages—a picture of a Mommy and Me class in progress, for instance, or jazz students rehearsing for recital.
At the end of each season, teachers fill out congratulatory placement cards for all students, with handwritten messages such as: “Congratulations, you’re moving up from Basic Jazz I to Jazz I,” and “Keep up the good work on your turns.”
4 Avoid differentiation. Whether a student is on Extreme Edge or Jumpstart, or registered as recreational, makes no difference when it comes to class placement or opportunities. At The Dance Studio of Fresno, all classes are grouped by skill level, not company classification. “I will put rec students in with the dance team students if they are at level; I don’t separate them,” says Sampson-Dalena.
5 Take your inclusive approach all the way to the recital stage. Sampson-Dalena offers the same ticket distribution opportunity to all families, avoiding any preferential treatment for members of the competition teams. She also stages a professional photo shoot and uses the images to create a poster to advertise the recital and showcase the studio’s theme for the year.
Choreography is another top consideration. “I make sure my staff is aware that they need to give all rec students their moment of glory in recital routines, rather than spotlighting just one dancer,” she says. “We make sure every student feels special.” —Jen Jones Donatelli
Photos (2) (from top) by Alan Smith (Smith Photographic Arts), courtesy of Dance Education Center; by Robert Parsons, courtesy of Dancer’s Extension; (2) courtesy of The Dance Studio of Fresno
Spend a Saturday morning with Rima Faber and her 2-, 3- and 4-year-old dancers at Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, DC, and it’s easy to see why her teaching is lauded. Minutes before class, as she organizes her bag of tricks—scarves, books, palm-sized stuffed animals and assorted other teaching tools—she says, “Everything I do has a purpose in learning dance and in learning learning and in learning to be creative.”
Faber is an evangelist when it comes to teaching dance to children. She founded the Washington, DC–based youth studio and company The Primary Movers in 1979, which for 21 years served as a laboratory for implementing her methods and theories of how to impart big ideas about movement, creativity, imagination and mind-body connections to little people. In 1998 she was instrumental in founding the National Dance Education Organization, the largest nonprofit group for dance teachers spanning pre-K to higher education. Most recently she has been chair of the dance task force for the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, which this month has released new national standards for teaching dance.
“Rima is a master teacher,” says Karen Bradley, an associate professor at University of Maryland and a member of the dance standards team. “She’s engaging, she’s aware of every single thing that’s going on in the room, she responds in the moment to what they’re doing—if they wander off, she knows how to pull them back in—she’s funny, they’re amused by her, as well, and she knows how to talk to little kids.”
Like a mother hen with a coif of cropped red hair, she firmly leads her flock of wiggly youngsters, never missing a beat reining in the misdirected or distracted, coddling the hesitant ones and complimenting everyone, individually and as a group. “Three-year-olds are just grasping that they have a body, just grasping language and just beginning to understand protocols,” she says, noting that to start the class, she asks all the students to enter together, so they will feel integrated into the group from the outset—and so they won’t run wildly around the studio before everyone arrives. From there she introduces a song with movements that allow her charges to fly away like pigeons, but return to her at the nest. A brief segment on stretching teaches functional anatomy and body hemispheres: “What can we stretch?” she asks. “Our arms,” a pink-clad 3-year-old offers. “Can we stretch our arms front and back, up and down?” Some in the class suggest other parts: elbows, knees, hips. But in a few brief minutes, Faber changes pace and activity, before anyone can get bored or distracted.
There’s a method and plenty of science behind all these seemingly simple exercises. And Faber wants to see teaching of dance, from the youngest preschoolers to those in higher education, evolve. She was invited to helm a committee of artists and educators formed in 2011 to articulate the national core standards for dance. The group she calls her “dream team” met over a period of three years and came to a consensus on what students at every stage should understand about the art of dance. The national voluntary arts education standards—which in addition to dance include media arts, music, theater, visual arts—describe what students should know at each grade level and specifies what makes them ready for college and career.
While physical mastery plays a part in the standards, Faber says the goal is to understand dance and dancemaking. In doing this, students enhance cognitive learning, develop critical thinking and understand approaches to making art. “Just as we want to teach students not just to memorize a book but to understand the meaning of what they’re reading, and to write their own book, why should we be teaching dance that is only specific steps? We want to teach our students to read and speak dance, to create dance.”
The first national arts education standards created in 1994 have served as a blueprint for two generations of dance teachers, especially those in public education, for whom the standards were originally created. With the politicized and growing emphasis on core standards nationwide, Faber said it was time to update the standards for 21st-century classroom and studio teachers. The standards are both general enough to serve a broad cross-section of dance educators and specific enough that teachers from early childhood to college will be able to build lesson plans, classroom activities and curriculums that incorporate cognitive development. Eventually, there will be online video examples to make assessments easier and more uniform.
Beyond prepping children for rare careers with professional dance companies, the idea is that dance is essential to developing young brains. It’s a tool for teaching creativity, language acquisition, gross and fine motor skills, synthesis of ideas and critical thinking. The standards are built as a grade-by-grade progression. A high school student might be asked to “project meaning to an audience by projecting artistic intent from more than one genre or dance style and explain what a dancer must do.” It’s more, Faber points out, than just accomplishing a flashy leap or a high kick. “It’s the understanding of what a dancer has to do. And by the end of that term, they should be able to explain that,” she says. In the early childhood classroom, there is a greater focus on motor development, coordination and refinement of basic movement skills. For example, can a student discern the difference between a skip and a gallop and demonstrate that physically? What about the difference between a hop, a jump and a leap? And can a child see a skill and replicate it fairly well on his or her own body?
In the studio, Faber brings a rich and varied background to her work with even the youngest dance students. She began her early dance training in Manhattan, where she grew up immersed in the artistic world. Her father, Harry Gitlin, was a lighting designer and colleague of luminaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. As a child she studied with Blanche Evan, a pioneer in dance therapy, and Anna Sokolow, and, by 13, Faber was taking adult classes at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. In high school she was invited to take company class, where she encountered Graham and many of the dancers from that golden era, among them Bertram Ross, Yuriko, Helen McGehee and Stuart Hodes.
She was drawn to academics, as well, and set out for Bennington College at 17, where she fell in love with Cunningham technique. After college she worked in New York with the Judson Church crowd, went to Yvonne Rainer’s loft, where she experienced Steve Paxton’s early contact improvisation experiments, and did street dances with Deborah Hay. Over the years Faber has acquired vast knowledge and experience in multiple somatic and body techniques, which she incorporates into her lessons and into the standards.
“I joke that I spent the first 20 years of my life getting the best training there was,” she says, laughing, “and then I spent the rest of my life undoing it. I kept the essence, the power of movement, the dynamic, the emotional energy that children especially relate to.”
Instead of explanations, Faber favors vivid images and practical tools to help children conceptualize abstract ideas, especially since she says they can’t really abstract until about age 10 or 11. “I can’t just say, ‘Let your head move upward and forward.’ They won’t relate to that.” Instead, to work on vertical alignment, she might give each a palm-sized stuffed animal to place on the head and have them move about without it falling. “An animal on their head is sensory integration; it’s something they can feel,” she says.
One of Faber’s many teaching success stories over the years is Philadelphia-based teacher and choreographer Meg Foley, who took classes and danced with Faber’s Primary Movers from 4 until her early teen years. “I was encouraged to be curious, open and to not know as well as to seek,” she says. The emphasis on improvisation from a very young age has made Foley fearless as a choreographer. “Looking back I realize there was a lot of discovery. Rima did not explain the pedagogy to us. Rather, she let us just experience it, knowing that ultimately it will actually become a part of the student. She trusts the intelligence of the mind-body theories.”
As the core dance standards get disseminated, Faber hopes that teachers around the country—those in public schools and those in studios and conservatories alike—will also trust the cognitive approach encouraged in the standards. “These standards focus on the process of arts making, not on the content,” she says. “We are not dictating what teachers should be teaching. We are dictating the general process: What do people need to know who have to make art?” DT
For the complete core dance standards, go to arteducators.org/research/nccas.
Lisa Traiger writes about the performing arts and teaches dance appreciation in Rockville, Maryland.
Photos by Linda Spillers
With more than 600 college dance programs listed in the annual Dance Magazine College Guide, finding a dance program for the serious tap dancer should be a snap. But they’re “few and far between,” says Tony Waag, a founder and artistic/executive director of the American Tap Dance Foundation in New York City. “If one has a goal to be a tap dancer with a professional company, there are hardly any college options.”
ATDF’s education advisor Margaret Morrison concurs: “There are no programs that offer the comprehensive training that a professional tap dancer needs that would be parallel to what a modern dancer gets.” Aside from technique, composition and improvisation, tappers should be receiving an in-depth education about percussive dance’s rich historical and cultural legacy. Instead, classes are usually offered sporadically, often because of a lack of funding or a desire not to mar pristine studio floors.
How should teachers advise serious, college-bound tap students, particularly when tap is often given short shrift within most university dance programs? Prospective students should look closely at what each school offers and be prepared to think creatively if their options seem limited.
Taking the Initiative
While a number of college dance programs offer tap at varying levels and regularity, Acia Gray, who directs Tapestry Dance Company in Austin, Texas, notes that the training usually isn’t very broad, compared to what’s offered in the tap festival circuit. “They’ll almost have to start over, because many programs are for kids more interested in musical theater.”
Morrison, who teaches tap and the studio/lecture course Tap as an American Art Form at Barnard College in NYC, advises teachers to be realistic with their students. “I tell parents and teenagers that you have to be inventive and creative in your training and how you approach your college years,” she says. “Talent will not guarantee you a job.”
One option is to branch out beyond tap. Jo Rowan, chair of Oklahoma City University’s dance program, requires all 210 dance majors to take tap along with ballet and jazz. “We train our dancers to be triple threats,” she says. “They have to be singer/dancer/actors, and proficient in multiple styles of dance.” To that end, OCU offers 10 levels of tap, as well as rhythm tap, which emphasizes improvisation.
If there’s not enough tap on campus, find a dance community in the area. Supplement off-campus tap experiences with college courses in allied forms. Everything from ballet and modern dance to theater, jazz music studies and African dance and drumming classes can help enhance a serious tapper’s education. Waag notes that business and entrepreneurship courses also help, since most pro tap dancers must seek out and create opportunities for work. “We’re all surviving now through self-production,” he says.
A First-of-Its-Kind Program
Last November, Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, launched a first-of-its-kind program in American vernacular dance. The program, which includes tap, Appalachian clogging, flat-footing, Irish step dancing and urban dance, has recently begun auditioning and accepting students.
Program director Emily Oleson, herself a percussive dancer and co-founder of Good Foot Dance Company, calls the program a “tap-friendly vernacular dance program” and envisions between 30 and 50 dance majors within the next five years. Students can choose an emphasis in vernacular forms, sustainable dance practices or modern dance. “I’m here to prepare students to be empowered artists,” she says. “That means finding their own aesthetic preferences and making goals based on what they like.” She believes training dancers to be more fluent in related percussive forms will help them develop into versatile artists who can teach, coach and perform.
Oleson plans on inviting numerous guest artists to provide both inspiration and instruction to her students. After they leave, Oleson will continue coaching the dancers, encouraging them to be self-directed as they perfect the material they learned.
“The archive of tap is so rich and so available,” she says, “with wonderful biographies and film archives—tons of it available on YouTube. There are mentors who are still alive and happy to travel for residencies to share.” She wants her tap students to learn to utilize those resources through directed independent study and supervised research.
The College Debate
Waag remains wary of overemphasizing college study for tappers who want to go pro. “We’re grooming all these dancers, but where do they go?” he says, noting the few opportunities for full-time tap employment upon graduation. Gray, who helms one of the few pro tap companies in the country, echoes that concern, especially considering the heavy financial investment of college tuition. “What are we preparing them for?” she says. “If you’re a jazz musician, you can go to a jazz music conservatory and pretty much find work somewhere in your field. But I can’t say that about tap dancers.”
Oleson is more optimistic. “I think there are opportunities,” she says, noting that the key to a sustainable work life is finding, and making work for, the right community. “It may not be a fabulously extravagant living, but I think you can make a significant portion of it through dance if you want to and are clever about the business side of it.” DT
Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater and the arts from suburban Washington, DC
Photo by R.L. Geyer, courtesy of Emily Oleson
As summer temperatures rise, dance teachers from all over the country may find themselves reaching for a sweater in over-air-conditioned hotel and convention center ballrooms, where an alphabet soup of teacher-training workshops—from DMA to DEA, NDEO to ABT—take place. The workshops are a popular source of inspiration, tools and technique for the coming year.
Five years ago, Adrienne Clancy decided to create a more intimate version. Her Dance Educators Training Institute (DETI) attracts a collegial group of 45 to 50 participants, from students interested in teaching to newly minted teachers who just earned their BS degrees to those with decades of classroom experience.
What sets DETI apart, says Clancy, who is artistic director of Maryland-based ClancyWorks Dance Company, is the credo: “We all learn from each other.” This think tank–like environment, where all the facilitators participate in the entire week, makes for a tightly knit learning community.
Baltimore County Public Schools dance resource teacher Suzanne Henneman sends a group of dance and general education teachers to attend every year “to rejuvenate, to learn new information, to help stimulate their brains and bodies again,” she says. “Physically they learn new techniques and methodologies, and they network with each other and become part of the community.” Henneman says that with all their other obligations (fulfilling No Child Left Behind requirements, state testing, etc.), it’s rare that teachers get to interact with the dance world and with one another. And DETI is known for creating and teaching useful methodologies, like K–5 arts integration, in which dance and academic lesson plans come together in public school classrooms.
This year the weeklong institute, co-sponsored by Baltimore County Public Schools (which has worked with DETI since its inception), takes place August 1–5 on the campus of Towson University, outside of Baltimore. While many teachers are local, others come from around the country and the world. The workshops focus on four main tracks: composition/improvisation; curriculum designs and considerations; dance science/somatics; and techniques in modern, jazz, African and hip hop. Every attendee studies across all of these tracks.
Each day begins with a technique class, before moving into a working session on composition and improvisation, which culminates at week’s end in an informal showing of choreography. The somatic track explores different methods to build and maintain healthy dancer, and teacher, bodies, while this year the afternoon is given over to hot topics, including lesson planning and assessment tools; arts integration in the public school classroom; and a participant-led dialogue, one of Clancy’s trademarks. “I want to help educators think more about how to see themselves as facilitators who help students challenge themselves on a creative level,” she says.
Karen Kuebler, a dance and French teacher at École Primaire de Towson à l’Ouest, has attended DETI workshops to reinvigorate her teaching: “Whether it is a new idea on how to approach choreography, which I think DETI is very strong in, or a new way to approach your students, whenever you attend a workshop, you come out saying, 'I never thought of doing it that way.'"
For more: firstname.lastname@example.org. DT
Lisa Traiger writes on dance from the Washington, DC, area.
Photo of Adrienne Clancy teaching at DETI, by Rima Faber, courtesy of Adrienne Clancy
Sandra Fortune-Green remembers rushing over for class after school let out, setting every hair in place and pulling on pink tights and a black leotard to submit to the vigilant eyes of her teachers, Doris Jones and Claire Haywood. They demanded not only unparalleled technique, but also discipline, manners and impeccable grooming.
The renowned ballet school celebrates its 70th anniversary this year with a series of events culminating in a May 15 gala. At its inception, the school was among a few in the country instructing primarily African-American young ladies in classical technique. George Balanchine was known to visit or send scouts to recruit for his School of American Ballet. And, in 1961, Jones and Haywood founded the first African-American ballet company, the Capitol Ballet, seven years before Arthur Mitchell created Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Fortune-Green has led Jones Haywood School of Dance as artistic director since 2006, following Jones’ death (Haywood died in 1978). Recalling the women who trained her for the 1973 Second International Ballet Competition in Moscow, where she was the first African American competing, she says: “When you walked through the door, it was about standards. You couldn’t be late. You could not come here without any part of your dance attire.” That still holds today.
Besides Fortune-Green, who performed guest stints with the Royal Winnipeg and Santo Domingo ballets and made a career with Mary Day’s Washington Ballet, other alums include Broadway dancer/choreographer Hinton Battle; former Royal Netherlands Ballet principal Sylvester Campbell; former DTH principal and now director Virginia Johnson; and former Philadanco dancer Kim Bears-Bailey. But Jones-Haywood didn’t just produce fine dancers. The roster boasts professionals of all stripes.
“Miss Jones, who was a wonderful ballet dancer from Boston, couldn’t perform professionally because she was black. And we knew that,” says one-time student and Capitol Ballet dancer Lauri Fitz-Pegado, now a partner at a government relations and public affairs firm. “She had a real compassion and passion that came through. Miss Haywood was the hard-driving, tough one. She used a cane and sometimes it flew across the room.”
A retired university administrator and a student from 1944 to 1952, Adrienne Price remembers one of the best dancers at the school: “There was the A student and then there was Conchita. She was above and beyond.” That would be Chita Rivera, who went on to the School of American Ballet before taking over Broadway.
By the time Miss Jones died at 92 in 2006, the studio had lost some of its gloss, according to Fortune-Green, then a longtime teacher in DC’s public arts academy, Duke Ellington School for the Arts. She was determined to return the school to its legacy of excellence.
“To me, more is not necessarily better,” she says. “I work very hard to track kids according to ability, to have a quality product.” She presently oversees about 80 students in an expanded curriculum that includes modern, tap and jazz.
Renee Robinson, an alum who has danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 1981, says, “When I work with young people now, the two most important things I do—instilling discipline, whether they become dancers or not, and confidence—I learned at Jones Haywood.” DT
Lisa Traiger writes on dance from the Washington, DC, area.
Photo: Sandra Fortune-Green corrects a student (by Roy Volkman, courtesy of Jones Haywood School of Dance)
How journaling enhances the high school dance class experience
At Rhode Island’s Providence Academy of International Studies, dance teacher Marty Sprague’s high school students are exploring movement qualities. A small group shifts into slow motion as if pushing through pudding; another group investigates what it means to pop and twitch; and a third group explores the difference between flinging and floating. The classroom vibrates with chatter and movement. Then Sprague calls “time” and the students head back to their desks to think, reflect and write about what just happened. One student writes about the connections she made with her group. She also notes that another student jumped when he should have fallen to the ground, but, she writes, “Overall, I loved my dance performance.”
Sprague, who has been teaching at Providence Academy since 2003, knows that most of her students aren’t on track for professional dance careers. Instead, she uses movement to teach critical-thinking skills. Two of her chief tools are pen and paper. “Writing is thinking,” says Sprague. “And when students reflect [in writing], they have a record of their growth and of what they learned. It makes the creative process visible to them.”
In today’s high school classrooms, where the importance of test scores and college admittance rates outweigh pointed toes and perfectly executed arabesques, critical thinking is a prized commodity. Movement triggers this process; journal writing makes it concrete.
At the beginning of each semester, Sprague, who teaches three periods of dance to mixed-grade-level classes, explains that journal writing will be a crucial component. “It’s really important that you set up your expectations early,” she says. Sprague’s students maintain a notebook of reflections, which they leave in the classroom. About four or five times a week she stops her class a few minutes early and calls the group together to write about their experiences. She gives the students an open-ended prompt, which can be as simple as “Why do you think we’re learning this?” [see sidebar for more prompt ideas]. With this question in mind, her students compose a few sentences responding to the day’s work, such as an exploratory group movement session covering shape, floor patterns or weight sharing.
The fast pace of Sprague’s 52-minute classes doesn’t give her many opportunities to interact one on one. Journaling helps her better understand what her students are thinking about and how they’re thinking, allowing her to monitor their progress and the depth of their learning. “When I read even their short three-to-four sentence responses in their journals, I think, ‘Wow, this kid’s got it,’ or ‘Hmm, next class I better think about this because a bunch of students are wondering the same thing,’” Sprague says.
Martie Barylick is a former English teacher who now teaches a yearlong arts elective at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, New York. The course includes music, theater and dance, and Barylick team-teaches four sections—one for each grade level—with the school’s music and theater instructors. As in Sprague’s classroom, journaling and other reflective writing are integral to her approach.
Among their many writing assignments, including performance critiques and choreography proposals, Barylick’s students compose in-depth reflective self-evaluations about four times a year, and her students periodically write anonymous evaluations of one another. (To ensure considerate feedback, a teacher reviews the response before the evaluated student receives it.) Before her students begin writing, Barylick leads in-class discussions, demonstrating the types of ideas she wants them to tackle—both questions about the exercise or unit, as well as questions about themselves (for example, “What did you learn about dance?” and “What did you learn about yourself as a dancer?”).
Barylick’s and Sprague’s students journal in class. While Sprague’s students write, she slowly wanders through the classroom reading their responses, sometimes jotting a note in the margins of a student’s journal. Or she may affix a sticker, a simple way to give positive reinforcement. Barylick also tries to comment on most of her students’ reflections. “Kids look for my check marks and underlining,” Barylick says. Feedback lets students know their comments were read; a question probing why a student felt a certain way or a smiley face next to a meaningful observation keeps students motivated and engaged.
Both Sprague and Barylick include journaling and other written assignments in their students’ final grades. Neither worries much about grammar, punctuation or spelling when they read reflective writing; instead they’re interested in what’s going on in their students’ heads.
One of Sprague’s favorite assignments is having students write letters to their parents. “They write a response to a question or about an activity we’ve done that week, explaining it to their parents,” Sprague says. Before the students take the letters home, Sprague reads them, adding a comment to each. “Then the parents read it and write back to their students on that paper.” The assignment builds the parent-school connection, and it demonstrates that the learning in dance class goes far beyond mastering steps. DT
Journaling for All Ages
Marty Sprague and Martie Barylick say their journaling exercises could be adjusted for middle- and elementary-school–aged children. They suggest very young students could draw rather than write their responses.
The Creative Spark
Marty Sprague often uses prompts to guide her students’ journal entries. Questions should allow students to explore their thoughts on the page. Here are a few suggestions for students working on a group choreography module:
—What did you do on your dance study today?
—How did you and your group explore the movements and decide which versions/variations you are going to use in your dance study?
—How long is your dance so far? What are you going to do next?
—Is your dance study complete? Are you and your group ready to perform? Answer why or why not.
—What do you like best about your dance? What would you change, improve or add?
Lisa Traiger teaches dance appreciation and writes about the performing arts from the Washington, DC, area.
Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Branislav Ostojic
Doris Humphrey derided symmetry in dance as boring. But perhaps she would have felt differently if she’d had math teachers like dancers Karl Schaffer and Erik Stern. They have an affinity for symmetry and other mathematical concepts and have developed a program that offers dance-based math lessons and math-based dance lessons for K–12 classrooms. Since their first foray into cross-curricular instruction in 1990, educators from around the country have signed on, incorporating exercises from Schaffer and Stern’s self-published handbook, Math Dance, into classes and inviting the pair to perform in schools and for education associations.
Though their program grew out of personal interests, it fits well with current educational trends to address different learning styles and make classrooms more exploratory. “We encourage teachers to use our activities—but also the whole program as a model for cross-disciplinary work,” says Stern.
Schaffer is on the math faculty at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, and Stern teaches dance at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. They travel about six times a year for Math Dance workshops and performances, sometimes as visiting artists for the Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education program, which fosters relationships between arts organizations and schools.
Schaffer and Stern’s partnership began more than 20 years ago in Santa Cruz, CA. Stern, who has a BA in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an MFA in dance from Cal Arts, was dancing with Tandy Beal’s company. Schaffer was a grad student at UCSC who split his time between the dance and math departments, “which didn’t make either one very happy,” says Schaffer, who eventually earned his PhD in math from UCSC.
The two dancers immediately hit it off. “We found we shared a similar sense of humor and an interest in bringing philosophical concepts into dance,” says Schaffer. After choreographing and performing together for three years, they began creating work that explored the connections between math and dance. “Choreography is a way to identify, define and change a pattern in time and space. That’s a math problem,” explains Stern.
In 1990, the two created a performance piece for kids made up of a series of short acts that explored different mathematical ideas and included plenty of audience interaction. The performances were popular and before long the duo was touring schools and other venues around the country as the Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern Dance Ensemble.
Teachers soon began asking if their material could be used in the classroom. “Well, the answer was ‘sure’ but we had to figure out how,” says Stern. Schaffer had taught math to children and Stern had led dance workshops while working with Tandy Beal. But to combine the two subjects, they decided the best source of material would be their choreography.
Their first exercise, called Counting Handshakes, came straight from their performance piece and explores the mathematical concept of combinations. In pairs, students create a movement sequence by finding how many ways they can shake hands using one hand at a time (i.e., right to left, left to right, left to left, etc.). “At first, our goal was to get students to get the correct answer,” says Stern. “But over time we realized that the number you come up with depends on how you interpret the rules. Does a handshake performed over your heads count as a different one? Well, it can if you decide it does. What mattered was that the students understood the question and could explain their methodology.”
Another exercise on probability has each student create a movement. Then with a partner, they toss a coin 10 times. One person’s movement is represented by heads, the other’s by tails. Before doing the exercise, most assume that they’ll be doing roughly equal numbers of each movement. But they soon discover probability is counterintuitive, Karl says.
Looking at math and dance together “freshens up the ways you think about both,” says Stern. Dance sheds light on math but math frees up how you think about dance, too. Take symmetry. The typical way of approaching it in dance divides the body (or a group of bodies) in half. But in math, there are many ways of looking at symmetry. There is reflection symmetry, rotational symmetry, symmetry of scale. “Once you realize this, you can begin to see symmetry is really just about describing what’s the same and what is different,” says Stern. “You can move sharp, smooth, sharp, for example, and can think about dynamics in terms of symmetry.”
The idea of exploring connections between math and dance may seem new to many, but to teachers who use Math Dance it makes sense. Kathryn Irey, who teaches dance pedagogy to liberal studies students at San Diego State University, uses the book to teach her students about bridging K-12 arts and academics. But her college students often refresh their basic math skills in the process. “Some find that they never owned some of these principals,” she says, “until moving through them.” DT
Lisa Traiger, former president of the Dance Critics Association, contributes to The Washington Post, Dance Magazine, Pointe and other publications.