Dance eXchange teaching artists Ann-Marie Gover and David Irwin work with children of Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia.
With its bright-orange ceiling, cavernous acoustics and basketball hoops dotting the wall, the basement gym of Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia is an unlikely dance studio. But thanks to BalletX, it becomes just that every Tuesday and Thursday morning when upward of 30 third-graders tiptoe through its industrial-strength doors.
In its third year, the contemporary ballet company’s Dance eXchange program pairs teaching artists with local elementary schools in an inner-city district that is otherwise starved for arts programming. Students receive 13 weeks of instruction culminating in a series of showcase performances at Philadelphia’s Prince Theater.
At the start of class, teaching artist Belle Alvarez requests “a nice Pink Panther theme” from her accompanist. Routine is paramount for these students, many of whom have never danced before, and the familiar tune sets the perfect tone for a quiet entrance.
“The space is not ideal,” says Alvarez, who earned her BFA from Temple University in 2014. “But we use body language as much as we can to avoid losing our voices.” She employs a variety of both visual and audio cues to engage the students. For a jazz square they chant, “Step across, glasses on, glasses off,” while a side-touch elicits, “Check the time, look at your watch.”
Each student wears a name tag and stands on a line taped to the gym floor. When they turn to face the back of the room, they’re greeted by one of Alvarez’s teammates, David Irwin: tall, sporting dreadlocks and ready to take up the charge.
Dance eXchange follows the pedagogy of the National Dance Institute, which was founded in 1976 by New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise. Having grown up in a low-income family, d’Amboise sought to create a curriculum that would inspire and engage all students through dance, regardless of their socioeconomic status, background or physical ability.
Today’s class is no exception. While some of the students have dyed hair and sequined Ugg boots, others wear broken glasses and long-outgrown uniforms. One is being observed by a behavioral specialist. Many of the nearly 200 students enrolled in Dance eXchange are English language learners.
One bilingual student, whose enthusiasm for dance has landed her the coveted spot of line leader in her class’ routine, names Latin music star Romeo Santos as her favorite singer. She follows up with a caveat: “He’s Mexican. You’ve probably never heard of him.”
Skipping to the center of the room, the 8-year-old leads her classmates through the “Motownphilly” routine they’ll be presenting to their parents the following week.
“We get to go to the Prince Theater!” she exclaims. But her excitement fades when she adds that her father might not be able to make it to the performance. “He’s gonna ask his chef if he can take off work, but I don’t know.”
A week later, the Prince is bustling with camera-clutching parents and younger siblings. The performance has been postponed once already due to snow, but when BalletX founder and artistic/executive director Christine Cox steps onstage, she beams with pride. “Our hope and dream is that this night will stay with the students,” Cox tells their parents, “and maybe spur a lifelong interest in dance.”
Albert M. Greenfield Elementary students perform at Prince Theater in Philadelphia.
As the students line up, she explains that this year’s program has used movement to explore the life of Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin. Student submissions for the program’s T-shirt design contest are replete with kites, keys and lightning bolts. Additional musical selections for the program include “Electric Avenue,” “Philadelphia Freedom” and Pharrell Williams’ “Freedom.”
But first it’s time for “William Tell.” One by one, the students run down the aisle, up the steps and straight to center stage, where they perform their very best leap to a steady stream of cheers and applause. It may seem like an accident waiting to happen, but the teaching artist and company are strategically positioned to get everyone safely onstage and to their spots in record time.
After demonstrating their warm-up sequence, jazz squares and all, each class performs its routine. There are no sequins. No tutus. Instead, it’s the third- and fourth-graders who light up the stage.
“I love seeing the kids become really proud of themselves,” Alvarez says. “They’ll tell me, ‘I didn’t think I could dance, but now I can.’”
When “Motownphilly” finishes, the 8-year-old line leader breaks ranks and runs down the aisle. She throws her arms around a man sitting in the middle of the theater: Her father has made it to the show after all. DT
Kat Richter is a writer, dancer and professor of anthropology. She lives in Philadelphia.
Photos by Audrey Simmons, courtesy of BalletX
Segerstrom Center brings Disney to Costa Mesa, CA, schools. Fromtop: Kendra Moore of The Lion King visits Stanley Elementary; students of Eisenhower Elementary perform Disney’s Aladdin.
A whole new world opens up for a young elementary school kid performing the title role of Aladdin. It’s the first time he’s sung in front of his family, much less an audience. It’s the first time his school has put on a musical. The memory still brings tears to the eyes of musician and teaching artist Cynthia McGarity, who works with Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.
Therein lies the power of a remarkable program created by Disney Theatrical Group, which partners nationwide with arts organizations in nine cities to bring the joy of being onstage to youngsters in Title I schools who might never have thought of performing in a musical in their lives.
“We had cast a boy as Aladdin who had this wonderfully rich voice—just like chocolate—but he was very, very shy. At first he wouldn’t even hold his head up to say a line audibly,” McGarity says.
“Watching him, with his shoulders back and his head held high belting that tune out was...” she pauses as her voice cracks. “His parents approached me after the show, and his father was weeping. He said to me, ‘I never knew that he could do that. I will make sure he has the opportunity to keep singing.’”
“I think we probably were not nearly aware of how much we would fall in love with this program,” says Talena Mara, Segerstrom Center’s VP of education. “We weren’t sure what we were getting into, and it was a big nut to crack for a small staff, but we found, after going through the first year, that this program has made an intense and remarkable change, not just in the kids and the faculty, but in the internal culture of each of the schools.”
Launched in 2009, Disney Musicals in Schools was developed by the Disney Theatrical Group—which produces and licenses Disney musicals—and Music Theatre International, which, among other services, works with schools and community groups on pocket (JR. and KIDS) versions of Broadway shows appropriate for younger audiences.
“It was born to fill a need we identified,” explains Lisa Mitchell, senior manager of education and outreach at Disney Theatrical Group. Over the years, as Disney licensed the abridged versions of its musicals for school-aged children to perform, she says, it became apparent that most requests came from suburban schools, and very few from urban and lower-income areas.
“Here we are in New York City, we have kids performing in Aladdin from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island, and yet they weren’t doing these shows in their own schools,” she says. “But rather than just going in and staging a show for them, we wanted to plant the seed of an ongoing, sustainable program. Disney Musicals in Schools is deliberately designed to provide professional development and training to teachers so they can learn how to get a show up on its feet.”
In just seven years, Disney has fostered the program nationwide via local arts organizations in New York, Nashville, Las Vegas, Seattle, Costa Mesa, Newark, Cleveland, Lansing and the San Francisco Bay Area, and brought it to 138 schools with nearly 13,000 kids at the third- through fifth-grade levels participating.
Like Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, each local institution receives a two-year $100,000 grant to identify four or five underserved, urban elementary schools and match them with four or five pairs of musical theater professionals who will work with each school’s faculty over 17 weeks, training them in the art of putting on a show. The teaching-artist visits, CDs of the musical tracks, scripts, DVDs of examples and the license to perform a special half-hour elementary school KIDS version of popular shows, such as Aladdin, The Aristocats or The Lion King, are all part of the grant, and offered free to the schools.
Disney Musicals in Schools also provides a detailed teacher’s handbook that includes chapters on how to run an audition, how to rehearse the kids, ideas for costumes and staging notes. Organizations like Segerstrom select the schools from among applicants and tap into their connections to find the professional mentors, many of whom have Broadway national credits, in addition to a passion for education. The teachers and students provide the enthusiasm and energy.
“Learning the routines, getting kids engaged, how to cast, how the staging should look—our teaching artists taught us so much,” says Victoria McKenney, a first-grade teacher at Everett A. Rea Elementary in Orange County. “We had a 40-kid cast, and I was overwhelmed at first. It was my first year teaching and I thought, ‘How on earth am I going to do this?’ But we met twice a week and for another half-hour after each rehearsal with the teaching artists, and they were really inspirational. The kids loved it—nobody dropped out—and it’s really brought these kids extra opportunities to shine outside the classroom.”
This year, McKenney and her fellow faculty at Rea will take what they’ve learned and mount another Disney KIDS musical, The Lion King, but on their own. “I’m feeling more confident than ever, even though I had no experience before this,” she says. “We believe we can do it.”
In the second year, Disney Musicals in Schools continues to support schools with a free performance license with ShowKit materials and invites faculty back for a Musical Theater 201 workshop designed to build on skills they gained the previous year, explains Mitchell. “The end goal is that they keep doing this, and 90 percent of schools that begin the program continue a long tradition of doing a show,” she says.
“It is incredibly well-designed,” says Mara. “It’s really helped unify the staff and admin, and the kids and the teachers of these schools, and allowed them to feel proud and energized and engaged. The parents became very connected with the program as well, so it changed the community where the school was located. We did not anticipate that that would happen to the degree it did, so we were blown away by its impact.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photos by (from top) Doug Gifford, Nick Koon; both courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts
In Washington, DC, a dance teacher collaborates with a language teacher to create a cultural exchange program of a lifetime.
In the Beijing High School No. 9 dance studio, students from the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, and their Chinese counterparts line up for a first lesson together. On one side of the room, the Chinese dancers in leotards and tights warm up with splits and over-the-ear stretches. On the other side, the American teenagers in T-shirts and leggings watch with wary admiration: What will it be like to dance together?
But as soon as the lesson in Chinese traditional fan dancing begins, the Americans’ apprehension quickly dissolves. The students laugh together and help each other, movement transcending the barriers of language. “I was amazed how much we could communicate without words,” says NCS student Vanessa Moore. “In learning their dances, I really felt I was stretching, but I think the Chinese dancers did, too, when it was our turn to teach.”
This collaboration took place in March 2013, thanks to the efforts of NCS Dance Program director Vladimir Angelov and Chinese language teacher Ted Xu to initiate a dance and language exchange with China. Cultural programs like this help students to broaden their horizons and become more versatile dancers.
“Instead of a performing arts academy to partner with, we looked for a school similar to ours,” says Angelov. “We found that Beijing High School No. 9 had a strong dance program. The school’s main focus is on academics, yet their dance program is developed with high standards, like ours. About 100 girls and 10 to 15 boys participate annually.”
It took nearly two years to work out details before 10 girls and 5 boys, with teachers and mothers as chaperones, boarded the 14-hour flight to Beijing. On the group’s first day there, 12 U.S. and 28 Chinese dance students came together to take four half-hour dance classes, back-to-back, two given by NCS teachers and two by Chinese teachers.
After the fan dance, NCS dance teacher Ingrid Zimmer taught Isadora Duncan technique, followed by a traditional dance from Mongolia, and then Angelov taught improvisational modern dance. Unique for the Americans was dancing with fans, drums, ribbons and spears, props common to Chinese dance. NCS Chinese teacher Rae Weeks translated the Chinese dance teachers’ verbal instructions while dancing them at the same time. On the second day, NCS girls taught the Chinese students hip-hop and step moves.
The high point of the exchange was a joint gala evening held in a local theater under the flags of the U.S. and China. Both dance groups showcased their talents and a sample of their signature dance genres. NCS students presented lyrical, hip hop, tap and American classical modern dance. Beijing No. 9’s Golden Seal dance company performed traditional Mongolian modern dance. At the curtain call, dancers from both countries hugged each other to the applause of local media and officials in the audience.
When not dancing, the Americans toured sights of China’s past: the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. They spent a day at the Gucheng School, where they witnessed student choral and musical performances, and visited residential areas, ate in a local home, tried their hand at making dumplings and attended Chinese acrobat and kung fu performances.
“I have learned not to believe everything you see on TV,” said one student. “I honestly thought China had nothing but factories and everyone was so strict.” But “the hospitality of the students at the school and just people in general” contradicted this. The cultural exchange also gave them a new perspective on the U.S. “Everything in the States seems easier now. I am more appreciative of what we have by being a democratic country.”
A year later, Beijing students visited NCS for a reciprocal experience, taking classes from NCS teachers, touring Washington, DC, and performing on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. And when Angelov and Xu prepared a new exchange with China and also Macau and Hong Kong in March 2015, they included three NCS students from the inaugural trip to help guide the younger dancers.
Though this particular program was organized by faculty in a private high school, there are opportunities for teachers in other kinds of schools to conduct similar exchanges, with the support of school administrators and parents. Typically, the Americans raise money to visit a Chinese host school that might cover local travel and lodging. A New York City–based teacher/consultant from Wuhan, China, Ling Tang offers programs that prepare U.S. K–12 students to study in China or merely to experience its culture. “Classes are offered almost entirely in Chinese,” she says. “Through dance, students can understand the concept of collectivism/individualism, how Chinese dance is gender-oriented and how movements are derived from diverse living environments.” DT
Judith Lynne Hanna’s new book is Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
Photos courtesy of National Cathedral School
Mary Seidman brings Remy Charlip’s books and methods to life at Bank Street School for Children.
It’s a Monday morning in March at the Bank Street School for Children in New York City, and Mary Seidman’s class of 7- to 8-year-olds is demonstrating “airmail shapes” for an audience of 200 peers. A woman walks onstage with a white cloth banner. She holds it up to the audience, revealing a black painted outline of two abstract shapes. At the sight of the shapes, two boys jump up from the front row and re-create the shapes with their bodies: One boy assumes a tabletop position, planting hands and knees into the floor; the other perches on folded knees atop his friend’s back, with arms stretched out in wide blades like an airplane. They hold the position for roughly 10 seconds, and then as the woman drops the banner, they quickly return to their seats. Another two kids jump up to create their shape in front of a banner held by another dancer.
This demonstration is the culmination of Seidman’s first-ever 10-week integrated arts unit on the books, visual art and choreography of the late Remy Charlip (based on a unit created by Catherine Gallant). A children’s book author, illustrator, actor and founding member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Charlip created a choreographic method called the “airmail dance” in the 1960s. He would draw a series of poses and then send them to a dance company. The dancers would arrange the poses in whatever order they liked and then add transitions to move from one pose to the next. In this way, Charlip provided the framework for a dance without ever being present.
Seidman had been teaching at the Bank Street School for three years when she became inspired by Charlip’s work. “I identified with him a lot because, not only was he a choreographer in the downtown dance scene like I am, but he was highly empathetic with children,” she says. “He knew how to write books for kids and his stories translate so naturally into choreography.” She saw a huge potential for learning through multiple mediums using Charlip’s methods and literature, so she decided to create a unit of study on Charlip for her movement and physical education classes at Bank Street.
Seidman established age-specific goals for each of her classes, with the children ranging from 3 to 8. For her oldest class, the 7- to 8-year-olds, she challenged them to re-create Charlip’s weight-bearing shapes with partners using his airmail drawings. The children paired up, picked drawings they liked and re-created the shapes in a series. Seidman describes their process: “They had to figure out the body balances and connections necessary to help them hold the shape and then had to decide on transitional movements from one shape to the next, without collapsing!” After mastering their shapes, the students then worked with the art teacher to draw outlines of the poses on large banners.
For her younger age groups, Seidman knew she wanted them to improvise to Charlip’s children’s books. She’d begin a lesson by reading one aloud to the students, and then together they would improvise movement. Fortunately was a favorite. It tells the story of a boy named Ned who undergoes a series of fortunate and unfortunate events and is a good way to explore the concept of opposites. “We went from happy, when Ned gets the invitation to the birthday party, to glum when he realizes he is too far away to attend,” Seidman explains. In response, the children put their arms up above their heads with big smiles on their faces and then transitioned to a contracted, curved-over position to demonstrate how Ned was feeling.
“Because Charlip was a choreographer, there was so much kinetic energy in his stories,” says Seidman. Action words like “jump,” “explode,” “fall” and “run” provided the children with clear cues for movement exploration.
At the Monday school showing, Seidman had her company, Mary Seidman and Dancers, perform Charlip’s Big Red Day (1961) and Contra Dances (1980) and her own airmail duet called Let’s Hang On, based on Charlip’s airmail drawings. “The marvelous thing about showing the adult work was that it raised the level of understanding for the children,” she says. Having another visual reference reinforced what the children had learned in the classroom.
“Children learn in so many different ways,” says Seidman. “This unit was a way to learn through various media.” Over the course of the 10 weeks, the children covered literacy, language development, visual art, kinetic energy and musical movement and theatrical training. “It’s the best way to learn, if you ask me,” she says. DT
Photos by Jeff Kulick, courtesy of Mary Seidman and Dancers; courtesy of Remy Charlip estate; Thinkstock
An innovative way to learn math and music with movement
A group of young students is working to form a circle, giggling as they cross arms and reach for one another’s hands. One girl stands in the center as the children begin to rotate around her. It looks like they’re doing a simple dance, but that’s not the case. These dancers are actually learning about math as they pretend to be points of a circle, trying to keep an equal distance from the girl in the center.
The class is M3 = Math x Music x Movement, a summer enrichment program in which children discover mathematical patterns through dance and music. They explore such concepts as spatial arrays, jumping fractions and symmetric duets in an environment where they can take creative risks without feeling wrong. “The class does not focus on ‘getting an answer’ but rather discovering connections,” says instructor Janet Blenheim. Her program combines dance and academic components to show how patterns are the common denominator for math, music and movement.
The Roots of M3
Blenheim started teaching the class at Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, just two years ago, but her work integrating math and movement has been evolving for several decades. She danced professionally before earning a double degree in dance and elementary education, and she went on to teach creative movement and ballet at all levels. Now a Japan Fulbright Scholar and head of the K–5 Math Department at the School District of Upper Dublin in Pennsylvania, Blenheim is developing a repertory of Math & Movement lessons integrated with children’s math literature. “I believe students who are physically and cognitively engaged develop a deeper and lasting understanding,” she says. “The Chinese proverb I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand is my mantra.”
Lisa Collins Vidnovic, director of MBA, has known Blenheim for 25 years and is thrilled to be able to offer her school as a platform for the program. “We share a passion for dance and education, and different ways that we can expose all children to math and literature,” says Vidnovic. “Some children just learn better while they’re moving.”
M3 is designed for children entering second, third and fourth grades, but it has the potential to adapt to a variety of ages and levels. Students are on their feet using elastic to form geometric shapes, arranging polygons into patterns and choreographing dances to fit musical phrases. In the two-and-a-half-hour class, five days a week, there is little inactivity.
The first day, Blenheim has children introduce themselves by clapping the syllables of their name and having the group echo in response. “Then I introduce and model variations of pitch, tempo, accent, pattern (repeating a syllable) and movement (clap, snap or stamp),” she explains. “We repeat the name echo activity, but with choices and infinite variations.” Blenheim believes that the creative process flourishes when you establish structure and allow children variety or choice.
Her class follows a consistent structure starting with a body warm-up to music by composers such as Scott Joplin. She then gives a “brain warm-up,” a problem or puzzle for the students to consider. They might work with partners and try to arrange 16 dancers in an array formation, using colored tiles to represent their costumes. Blenheim’s instruction is: “The costume designer insists on a different colored costume in every row, column and diagonal.” The children organize their arrays and then record their thinking on paper handouts.
Each class is based on a theme or essential question, such as: What are polygons and where do you see them in everyday life? Blenheim gives a brief lesson about geometry terms and has the children model concepts with their arms and copy movements while saying vocabulary words aloud. “I choreograph the timing and activities of the classes to keep them engaged without exhausting them physically or mentally,” she says.
Before the end of class, students are creating dances and counting music in multiples of threes and fours. One exercise has them moving across the floor in a “run, run, leap” pattern, alternating right and left, shouting out multiples of three. Later, Blenheim teaches musical terms by having everyone count aloud: softly (piano) 1, 2, loudly (forte) 3…until they reach 30.
“A lot of learning math is seeing the patterns involved,” says Vidnovic. “Janet has them choreograph a lot, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.” Vidnovic is hopeful that the M3 program will help students have a better understanding of choreography in their dance classes and rehearsals. “In general, it’s hard to get children to envision the spatial dilemma,” she says, “and how they should visualize the stage, the space they’re dancing in and their place in it.”
So far, parents and children are enthusiastic about the program, and Blenheim takes pride when she sees her students quantifying everything from jumps and turns to body angles by degrees. “The children are thrilled to dance a subject that is traditionally done seated at a desk with paper and pencil,” she says. “Parents are always curious about how I could possibly combine three distinct disciplines. The lightbulb goes off when I explain that the common denominator is patterns.” DT
Julie Diana retired as principal dancer from the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014.
Photos by Janet Blenheim, courtesy of M3= Math x Music x Movement
Ask middle school students their thoughts about a modern dance performance and watch how quickly the battle of “I loved it!” or “I hated it!” begins. Too often young dance students have tunnel vision on physical training and rarely care to see performances outside their personal aesthetic. But K–12 education should expand students’ field of vision. By guiding their eyes to openly observe and their minds to analyze the viewing experience, you can teach your students to appreciate a variety of choreographic styles.
The 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center in New York City created a new course this spring for just that purpose. Over the five weeks of the Dance Education Lab (DEL)/Harkness Dance Festival Intensive, a group of 16 K–12 educators attended performances and worked with the dance company members in the studio, all with the goal to help their students view, understand and talk about dance.
This year’s Harkness Dance Festival was inspired by choreographer and festival curator Doug Varone’s Stripped/Dressed performance concept, wherein the audience is given a peek into the creative process to see what the choreographers are motivated by and how the editing process shapes their work. Before performing, the choreographers informally share their unique modes of movement generation and their approach to themes and music.
Educators participating in the DEL/Harkness Dance Festival Intensive attended the five festival performances, then they spent four hours working in the studio with each company to delve into the creative devices and choreographic themes of the work. The 2014 intensive included Kyle Abraham, casebolt and smith, Nora Chipaumire, Netta Yerushalmy and David Dorfman—an innovative and eclectic group of choreographers.
“We learn directly from the choreographer or company member how their work is created, then we establish connections between these choreographic strategies and the NYCDOE Dance Blueprint,” says Ana Nery Fragoso, Dance Education Laboratory faculty member and intensive facilitator, referring to the New York City Department of Education’s curriculum guidelines for teaching dance. The workshop is unique in its focus on guiding dance educators to become well-informed viewers, not just dancers.
The first half of class is for improvisational and imaginative tasks, so participants can get a flavor for the choreographer’s way of working. “The choreographer designs strategies to help us create movement material on the spot,” says Fragoso.
The second half puts these strategies and themes into practical classroom perspective, using such tools as Laban Movement Analysis categories of body, dynamics, space and relationship. Participants have time to brainstorm ideas for K–12 dance curriculum and formulate lesson plans.
For students to effectively discuss a choreographic work, Fragoso suggests they experiment with creating choreography, developing their personal voices. One of the workshop’s main goals was to spark ideas for guiding the creative process, to ultimately open students’ minds to all styles of choreography.
Kyle Abraham’s workshop, taught by company member Chalvar Monteiro, began with an arm phrase from Abraham’s piece The Radio Show. He then guided the group through a loosely structured improv—create three arm gestures that repeat, while the legs and body move freely below—then scaffolded new ideas onto the initial task. He requested level changes, encouraged borrowing other dancers’ gestures, incorporated music changes and finally opened the improv into a circle wherein three people were moving at all times. The participants were excited that the structure allowed them to become a cohesive group discovering a common thread, regardless of their varied training backgrounds.
An underlying premise of the intensive is to reveal that no matter how complex a work appears onstage (especially when performed by virtuosic professionals), there is often a simple beginning structure. For example, one of Abraham’s basic movement tasks works for all ages: Dancers must travel from one side to the other using three action words, such as dive, wiggle and pop. Netta Yerushalmy also used a word-oriented game, making movement sentences inspired by words in a Gertrude Stein novel. “For younger students, you could use a Dr. Seuss book and create a simple gesture for each word,” says Fragoso.
Going hand in hand with comprehending choreography is the need for a common vocabulary for students and teachers to discuss dance. This language elicits clear observations, descriptions and evaluations of their experience watching movement. The course description states that educators will honor their students’ “emotional and instinctive responses,” while guiding them to express responses more mindfully than saying “I liked it!” As Fragoso puts it, “We as teachers must learn how to form and ask open-ended questions, so students really analyze the work in their own way.” For more: danceeducationlaboratory.com DT
Jen Peters is a former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Photo (top) by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of 92nd St. Y; by Mariliana Arvelo, courtesy of 92nd Street Y
“No sounds, third-graders! I shouldn’t hear any talking!” Christine Sandorfi stood, hands on her hips, facing 27 rambunctious third-graders at the Claiborne Pell Elementary School in Newport, Rhode Island. The students, clustered in small groups on the yellow and gray–striped art-room floor, snickered and jostled one another while Sandorfi walked over to her iPod docking station to start the music. It was the first day of the Pell School Residency—a collaboration with Island Moving Company, a Newport, RI–based ballet company—and Sandorfi, a dancer with the company, was teaching them the steps of their class dance. Everything had been going smoothly up to now. The students had thrown themselves into learning the movement with surprising enthusiasm—spinning, making superhero shapes, hopping along the floor. Today, however, Sandorfi had asked them to do the unthinkable: hug one another.
The students were supposed to jump up and embrace, then fan out, keeping their arms around each other. Their last few attempts had included groans about possible cootie infections, awkward pats on the shoulder and even a fist bump—but very little hugging. “Third-graders, this dance is about acceptance,” said Sandorfi over the opening strains of the class’ musical selection. “Everybody sit crisscross applesauce facing the back, and we’ll try this again.”
While Sandorfi’s students scrambled to get out of touching one another, the group in the music room next door learned how to move in canon, and the group in the library received a crash course on simple partnering. In fact, five third-grade classes in all were busy preparing dances as part of the residency. For a full week in January, Sandorfi and four other members of the Island Moving Co. created choreography with the nearly 180 third-graders at the Pell School. The Island Moving Co. has been working with students in area schools for more than 15 years, teaching them rhythm, choreographic patterns and levels of movement. The residencies are often based on a theme, and this year’s is Better Together—a fitting idea, since Pell is the new unified elementary school for the whole district.
“When we meet with a school that wants a residency, we talk about what their needs are, and then we suggest or let them choose a theme that speaks to what they are trying to accomplish,” says Miki Ohlsen, artistic director of the company. “Many schools have chosen Better Together of late, because all schools are struggling with the ideas of accepting each other and celebrating difference.”
Though few of the students at Pell have formal dance training, Ohlsen finds that it isn’t an issue. Simply including a hip-hop move the kids have seen on TV or adapting something that seems flashy—like a pirouette—hooks the students and gives them a sense of accomplishment. “It is an atmosphere where there are no wrong answers—only opportunities to explore the possibilities,” she says. “Where else can a kid feel like that these days?”
And while Ohlsen and the company members choreographed parts of the dances, they left room for some student artistic freedom—a count of eight where the kids can fly like Superman wherever they want, for example, or the freedom to choose their own pose. “The more input the students have into what they are creating, the more invested and engaged they are,” she says. And the more they take away from the experience in the end.
During the residency, Ohlsen and the company artists not only encouraged collaboration among the students, but also between disciplines. Each class received a word that served as inspiration for their dance: unity, acceptance, support, respect and tolerance. But Ohlsen and her dancers asked the students to reflect more deeply on their word, so they had the third-graders create a piece of writing based on what the class word meant to them. Then, during the end-of-week performance, a few students in each class read that piece aloud to introduce their class dance. This cross-disciplinary approach helps connect the movement the students learn with the literacy curriculum at school. And by giving the students a voice in the creative process, the Island Moving Co. members teach them how to work together to create something—a perfect application of the week’s theme. “The residency,” says Ohlsen, “therefore also becomes a lesson in collaboration and cooperation.”
And it is a lesson that the Pell students learned without being aware of it. By the fourth day, even the most resistant of Sandorfi’s students barely cringed as they wrapped their arms around their classmates. Some even cracked a smile. “Movement levels the playing field for these kids,” says Ohlsen. “It’s the common denominator.” DT
Megan Keough is a freelance writer based in Providence and a former dancer with Tulsa Ballet.
Anatomy and kinesiology are usually subjects reserved for university-level courses, but even if your kids aren’t quite ready for a lecture about the relation between the trochanter and the anterior superior iliac spine, there are simple, practical lessons that can help them visualize the inner workings of their bodies and serve as a great introduction to movement concepts.
Helping students of any age experience anatomy and kinesiology concepts directly through exercises and moves they might use every day makes the information both immediately relevant and practical. They can begin to build an accurate vocabulary to describe human movement.
“You can start quite young talking about these ideas, if you give them something where they can see immediate improvement, see a difference in the mirror,” says Karen Clippinger, professor at California State University, Long Beach. “That way they can apply a concept right after it’s introduced, when the kinesthetic awareness is there.”
Any approach to anatomy is going to look different for different developmental stages, says Patricia Reedy, director of Teaching & Learning at Luna Dance Institute. Even so, the 3-year-olds in Luna’s programs are given core distal work, and instructors choose to use correct words with them right from the start. “Little kids might only understand gross parts of the body, so with a 3-year-old, we’ll talk about hands, legs, arms, feet,” she says. “But older kids love language, so we’ll talk about the clavicle, the sternum. As they get to third or fourth grade and start to learn about body systems in school like the circulatory system and its organs, you can ask more questions—how does your muscle move and where is it attached? What muscles are moving as you bend your arm or move your leg?”
Skeleton Dance (Pre-K to Second Grade)
Reedy notes that there are many variations of what is known as a “skeleton dance,” but regardless of which one you might use, it’s a great opportunity to talk about how the joints work.
“You might make the dancers move with articulation through each of the joints of the body as you call them out,” she says. “With the popularity of hip hop these days, we find kids enjoy the ideas of pop-locking, so it’s a natural movement for them to play with. You might talk about getting circles going with one hand and wrist while you move your head in another circle. It all helps them start to think about the joints.”
Pelvic Alignment (Third Grade +)
A great way to help students strengthen their core is to work on pelvic alignment through abdominal strengthening exercises. Clippinger, who is the author of Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology, advises having students stand sideways to a mirror and put their thumbs on the lower rib cage and little fingers on the hipbones, and they will feel the distance between their fingers increasing and then decreasing again as they tilt their pelvis forward and then tuck it back and then find vertical. Once they’ve experienced that feeling, they can take their hands away from the bones and try to maintain the distance accompanying the vertical pelvis, and try keeping that alignment all the way through an exercise, such as pliés or tendus, or a center floor exercise.
Clippinger also suggests pairing off dancers so they can do pliés pressed back-to-back with each other, keeping the pelvis and torso vertical as they descend, so they can feel that the back comes away from the other person if they start leaning forward. “With many young dancers, they’re not used to using their abdominals for stabilization, so it can really help them start to figure out how to do that,” she says.
Turnout (Middle School +)
The following exercise helps dancers activate the deep rotator muscles of the hip to maximize their turnout, rather than just gripping with the gluteus maximus.
“I have students start in a standing position with their fingertips at the base of the buttocks,” Clippinger says. “I tell them to rock back on their heels and turn out, emphasizing that they should feel those rotators working at the base of the buttocks, rather than just clenching the whole gluteus. You want them to start feeling the sensation of the leg rotating in the hip socket as a separate thing from the pelvis rotating.
Dancers should repeat the movement—parallel, rock back, turn out, parallel—several times so they can feel the deep rotator muscles working. Then vary the exercise to include movement from parallel to turned out to tendu side.
“You can also have them try a combination clenching all those big muscles, and they’ll find that when they try to move, they have to let everything go and lose their turnout, as opposed to trying to use the smaller deeper muscles, where they can both keep their turnout and continue to move at the same time,” she says.
Contact Work (Teens)
Teenagers are often interested in partnering work, Reedy notes. She suggests exercises that let them play with weight and contact. “Have them think about how you make a strong base for a partner,” she says. “What do you have to do? You can’t just tense up; you have to yield against your partner. You can ask them to press against the wall or the floor, or ‘rappel’ off each other, so they can start to think about counterbalance.”
Explorations like this can lead into discussions of bone structure and muscle anatomy, often in the context of safety. It also helps youngsters get a sense of the edges of their bodies. “I like doing work with weight, because kids can understand that it’s about bringing your full weight, the energy of your muscles and bones to the skin and letting it radiate from the edge of the body out,” she says.
“Knowing about anatomy and kinesiology can affect the way you move so powerfully,” Reedy says. “We can’t see inside our bodies, but we can experience it kinesthetically, play with it and begin to understand what’s going on. Students can go deeper with dance when they know what their body is doing and how.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt is based in San Francisco.