Teachers & Role Models

Michael Kerr Inspires a Love of Dance in Brooklyn Middle-schoolers

"I allow for a lot of exploration, a lot of risk taking," says Michael Kerr. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of PS DANCE!

"You know when people ask, 'Why does dance belong in K–12?'" asks middle-school dance teacher Michael Kerr. His response: "Well, why not? Not everyone who takes dance classes has the ambition of becoming a dancer, just like not everyone who studies science wants to become a scientist. That's a big revelation for my students. It changes the way they approach their work. I hope that when they walk out of my program, they will have a deeper appreciation for dance, be better-cultivated human beings and be more comfortable moving together."

Kerr has been teaching dance in New York City public schools for more than 20 years. Because of the success of the public middle-school dance program he created for Brooklyn's New Voices School of Academics & Creative Arts, he was one of five dance instructors to be featured in the 2015 documentary PS DANCE!, which examines the impact dance education programs have on NYC public school students and their daily learning.


With a standards-based educational approach, Kerr piques his students' curiosity and passion for dance. "Michael fosters an atmosphere of acceptance in his classroom, so students feel safe in improvising and expressing themselves in front of their peers," says PS DANCE! narrator Paula Zahn. "There are no mistakes in Michael's classroom, just opportunities to learn."

A Blueprint for Dance

Kerr is known among his peers for creating an educational environment that aligns with the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance, Grades PreK–12, the NYC dance curriculum guidebook for public schools, which Kerr helped write in 2005.

The Blueprint release made a significant difference for public-school dance educators, who had often had their work minimized by peers and school administrators, Kerr says. "Dance teachers are finally being taken more seriously in New York City," he says. "No, we are not physical-education teachers. We are no different than math or science teachers. You have to have the tenacity and a passion to do this work. I take it very seriously."

Classroom Implementation

Kerr's classes are a seamless blend of content and discovery, with students learning dance skills and technique contextualized by dance history and theory, says Deborah Damast of NYU Steinhardt, a contributor to the second edition of the Blueprint, and a colleague of Kerr's when he was on faculty at 92nd Street Y Dance Education Laboratory. "His students create original work that is relevant and important to who they are," she says, "and they have opportunities to work with masterworks and guest artists from major dance companies."

Since Kerr started his New Voices program in 2000, every sixth-grade student—there are nearly 200 of them each year—is required to take his introduction-to-dance class. It's a sequential, Laban Movement Analysis–based program, which introduces core elements of dance as a foundation to developing a class choreography and familiarizes students with the lives and work of 20th-century dance artists, like Isadora Duncan, George Balanchine and Katherine Dunham. "Knowing about the life and work of a dance artist enables my students to think analytically about the dances we see and to become perceptive spectators," says Kerr. At the end of the year, the students—some having never had a dance class before meeting Kerr—perform in a showcase for the entire school community and their families. "It doesn't get any better than when they see that everything they learned really did have some significance," Kerr says. "They see how each class created choreography based on their learning, in their own unique way."

When students reach seventh grade, they pick an arts "major," like theater, music or graphic arts. Dance majors work with Kerr on techniques, such as ballet, modern, hip hop and jazz, and they further experiment with the choreographic process. "I allow for a lot of exploration, a lot of risk taking. I'm not the 2+2=4 teacher," says Kerr, adding that he encourages his students to resolve their own issues without adult intervention whenever possible. "A lot of students want validation that they're doing something right and ask me for help. I tell them, 'Why do you need my help? Why do you think I know the answer?'"

Lifelong Impact

Brooklyn resident Shakirah Windbish, 22, was one of Kerr's students. She now works at New Voices and assists Kerr in his classes three times a week. "He's always been an ambitious, hard-working, structured teacher, but I feel like he's perfected his craft even more," she says.

In addition to learning firsthand tips on how to be a better teacher, Windbish is also an apprentice in Kerr's seven-member not-for-profit company, DanceKerr & Dancers, which he founded in 2015. The company performs Kerr's work throughout the NYC and New Jersey area.

Windbish hopes to someday run an occupational therapy practice that incorporates dance. "It feels good that I get to help and be supportive to the students, and that I get to help Mr. Kerr and continue to learn from him," Windbish says. "I can't give dance up ever. It's within me."

Your Studio
Thinkstock

Most dancers are taught from a young age that no matter what happens onstage, the show must go on! Costume rips? Don't stop dancing. Forget the choreography? Don't stop dancing. Fall down? Get back up, but for the love of all things holy, don't stop dancing!

Anna White, teacher and studio director at Melinda Leigh Performing Arts Center in Mobile, Alabama, breaks down how she conveys this message to her students.

Keep reading... Show less
Videos

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers & Role Models
Photo by Nathalie Van Empel, courtesy of BYU CFAC

It's been a good month for choreographer and teacher Nick Palmquist. While he's been on DT's radar for quite some time, he burst onto the social-media scene in late November when the biggest professional ballet stars in the country participated in the #nickpalmquistchallenge. Prompted by Palmquist's choreography, stars from Marcelo Gomes to Stella Abrera were digging into the sultry stylized movement of the Steps on Broadway commercial jazz teacher, and sharing it on social media. He now has 38.4K followers and counting.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Keren Kraizer, courtesy of Assaf

As a child—with no formal dance training—Roy Assaf knew the transformative power of an audience. Starting from the age of 5, he would prepare dances for family gatherings. "I remember that all the guests would form a circle around me," he says, "and I would execute what I had prepared for that event." Now, as one of the most exciting and wholly original choreographic voices today, Assaf has harnessed that ability to transfix onlookers by creating straight-from-the-gut, highly physical dances that intimate complex inner narratives. The bodies in his Israel-based company weave, rebound, change direction, pant heavily and always move with purpose.

His newest work premiered December 6–10 in New York City. This time, instead of choreographing on his core company of a handful of dancers, he created a work on all 24 of the Juilliard third-year dancers.

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock

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.

popular
Thinkstock

These four holiday dance videos are the break you need from the madness of the season. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll be recharged enough to dive back into another night of Nutcracker performances. (Yikes—hang in there guys!) Check 'em out, and share your favorite funny holiday dance videos with us on our Facebook page.

XOXO

Keep reading... Show less
Win It

Win It!

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored