Dance Teachers Trending

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."

Show Comments ()
Courtesy of NUVO Dance Convention

For all intents and purposes, Stacey Tookey is a Disney princess. Her voice is like honey as she waltzes around the classroom exclaiming words of encouragement, she sees the best in all of her dancers from the front row to the back and she's absolutely beautiful. I mean, come one! Who get's to have a kid, hip surgery, years of wear and tear and still maintain eternally lovely lines that rotate into perfection?

What's more? She creates a nurturing environment in her classroom where dancers feel comfortable as they navigate challenging combinations and complex emotions. No matter what you're going through, dancing with Tookey is good for the soul.

Here are four takeaways from her class this past week. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photos by Amy Kelkenberg

Whether a dancer has too much or too little, turnout can be one of the most frustrating aspects of technique. Students often feel they must achieve 180-degree rotation to become successful in the field. In reality, the average person only has 45 degrees of external rotation in each leg, meaning their first position should be no greater than 90 degrees.

Because range of motion in the hip is ultimately determined by the joint's structure, it is impossible for dancers to increase their structural turnout. Often, though, students do not use what they have to the greatest potential. By maximizing their mobility they will find greater ease within movement, improve lines and, most important, prevent injuries caused by forcing the joints.

Deborah Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, says the best way to unlock external rotation is to balance out muscle strength and flexibility. “Dancers are working the turnout all the time. They're always engaged and focused so much on using it. The minute they learn how to release those muscles they bring everything into balance," she says. “That middle is where dancers last the longest."

Here, Vogel suggests exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles that activate turnout:

Sitting Stretch: For Stretching Turnout Muscles at the Back of the Pelvis

Sit on the edge of a chair with knees at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross the right ankle onto the left knee. Lace your hands together and nestle them under the right knee, lightly pressing energy into your hands and toward the floor (though the knee should not actually move). Sit up straight—some may already feel tension here.

With a flat back, bring the belly button toward your legs. Continue gently pressing the right knee into your clasped hands.

Experiment with turning the upper body toward the knee or the foot to stretch different muscles.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Jim Lafferty

Have you ever attended an audition and wished that you knew what the director was looking for? We've rounded up some of our favorite quotes from our Director's Notes column over the past few years to give you a deeper glimpse into the minds of 10 artistic directors.

Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet

"I want to develop and nurture artists," says Wheater, seeking "people who are not afraid to be expressive, and understand all the layers that go into making a work above and beyond the steps."

Ingrid Lorentzen, Norwegian National Ballet

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via Kenedy Kalls Instagram

Dancers have a language all their own. From French technical terms to scatting out choreography dynamics, it's a wonder any nondancers understand a word we say! Perhaps some of the most confusing dancer terms are the various foods we use to describe our feet. To help dance outsiders out, DT broke down the foods that are commonplace in dancer lingo. Share them with your loved ones, so they can better understand the weird and wonderful breed of dancer that you are.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

Injuries can be devastating to a dance career, but you can reduce their occurrence or avoid them—if you know what to look for. To learn why certain injuries happen and what can be done to prevent them, we consulted a group of experts: Jacqui Greene Hass, director of Pilates and Dance Medicine at Wellington Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Therapy Services; Marijeanne Liederbach, director of research and education at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries; Jennifer Deckert, assistant professor at University of Wyoming (holds an MFA in ballet pedagogy and has presented at the International Association for Medicine and Science); and Michael Kelly Bruce, associate professor at The Ohio State University (certified in Pilates and specializes in conditioning).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Image via Michaels' Instagram

We all know and love Mia Michaels. She's a fearless choreographer and teacher, who's inspired a generation of dancers with her unique style, grace and brilliance. What's not to love? And now we can't help but gush over a personal confession she recently shared on Instagram.

Bottom line: No matter your age, size or shape, don't wait to love your body or yourself.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

I recently started back in modern dance after a long hiatus—I stopped dancing at age 11 and went back two years ago at age 24. I've found that when I'm on the floor, I can't open to a very wide second. Also, if I'm sitting in butterfly on the floor with my feet together, my knees are some distance from the ground. What can I do to loosen my hips?

Keep reading... Show less





Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!