Teachers & Role Models

How Mark DeGarmo's Public-School Program Is Firing Up the Next Generation of Dancers

DeGarmo leads a professional development session for his team of teaching artists. Photo by Rachel Papo

"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.


Students of P.S. 142, Amalia Castro School, perform in a recital. Photo by Leon Anthony James, courtesy of Mark DeGarmo Dance

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."

Photo by Leon Anthony James, courtesy of Mark DeGarmo Dance

"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."

DeGarmo's approach prioritizes a democratic process in the classroom: Everyone's voice is heard as part of the community. Photo by Bill Massey, courtesy of Mark DeGarmo Dance

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 maintains an active performance career. Here, he and Luis Gabriel Zaragoza perform in Las Fridas, DeGarmo's work about the life of Frida Kahlo. Photo by Leon Anthony James, courtesy of Mark DeGarmo Dance

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.

DeGarmo leads a professional development session for his team of teaching artists. Photo by Rachel Papo

"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."

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This month's winner is a lyrical piece to "Wounded Animal" by Mary Lambert, performed at the Turn It Up Dance Challenge. Before setting the movement, Ashley Zelano, choreographer and artistic director at the Fierce Dance Academy in New Castle, Delaware, took a cautious approach with the 11 teenage dancers. The song describes the despair felt in a relationship where one party can't fully commit. But she understood that her teenage students might not relate to what inspires her as an adult.

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Q: I'm looking to hire new instructors. How can I create a competitive job listing?

A: We've found the best way to attract qualified applicants for teaching positions at our studio is to be as specific as possible with our expectations, while communicating what makes our studio a great place to work.

Here's an example of a job description we've used when seeking teachers:

Lead Dance Instructor: Tap/Jazz/Contemporary; Choreography for Dance Teams.

Kathy Blake Dance Studios is seeking new instructors to join our faculty. Our performing arts school, located in the Souhegan Valley of New Hampshire, has an emphasis on excellence and love for the art of dance, with a student base aged 2 to adult. We pride ourselves on paying our teachers well, offering a professionally managed front office and fostering a sense of teamwork and collaboration among our staff.

We have an immediate opening for a dance instructor whose specialty is teaching intermediate to advanced tap, jazz and/or contemporary, as well as choreographing for competitive dance teams. We are seeking a creative, forward-thinking teacher who brings out the best in dancers. Schedule of 5 to 10-plus classes a week, based on availability. Position begins in August (or sooner, based on teacher availability). The school year runs from September through June. Pay is competitive and commensurate with experience and credentials.

Interested instructors: Please e-mail or reply to this ad with a current resumé and phone number, as well as what you love about teaching and what matters most to you in working for a dance studio.

Can't teach on our regular schedule? Please let us know if you'd like to be considered for our guest-artist master-class events.

Kathy Blake (Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire) and Suzanne Blake Gerety co-founded DanceStudioOwner.com.

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XOXO

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