"I always had a dual path of teaching and choreography," says Mark DeGarmo. At the same time as Mark DeGarmo Dance (MDD) embarked on 28 international tours in 12 countries, the company has also partnered with New York City schools to provide programs for kids struggling in some of the toughest socioeconomic conditions. What they've learned from three decades in classrooms with these kids has set MDD apart as a model for dance education.
DeGarmo is particularly earnest when he speaks about the need for more dance education: "A lot of the work we see even today comes out of a model where you really are trying to get people to your theater. Or the dance-company model where you're out on tour, and you want to teach master classes as an add-on benefit for earned income."
"A lot of the work we do is problem-solving–based or inquiry-based—trying to engage the kids and get them excited," DeGarmo says. He describes one class project to study Alvin Ailey's signature work, Revelations. Twenty kids were selected to represent the five classes (100 students) to look at original source material at the Lincoln Center Library for Performing Arts. "We went on a field trip to The Ailey Center and saw the boardroom with the Presidential Medal of Freedom," he says. "There are so many directions that an educator can take."
MDD's approach prioritizes a democratic process in the classroom—bolstered by improvisation and input from the students—so that everyone's voice is heard as part of the community. For example, the students take turns in a circle leading and following the spontaneous creation of movement, and they are encouraged to observe the other students' work in supportive ways.
Lessons are linked to the academic curriculum; improvisation is used to foster creativity and imagination; journaling and creative writing based on the students' experiences are also instrumental.
DeGarmo's program has produced noticeable results. Through a grant, an NYU sociology professor conducted a three-year study with DeGarmo's students and a control group. DeGarmo's students showed increases in math scores compared to the control. The quality and quantity of writing in their journals was also strengthened, and their classroom behavior improved.
"We're not going to have a field of contemporary or modern dance in 20 more years, if we don't get another generation as fired up about this as we were," says DeGarmo, who continues to choreograph and perform with his company of professional dancers. "I would encourage my colleagues, if you have an inkling, go for it. Be bold, try out things, make mistakes—we're all human. There's a deep commitment to social justice behind all of this to bring forward the voices of the unheard. We're very proud of that. I do hope other colleagues will take up the cause and be part of the intercultural community."