When New York City’s public school students entered their classrooms this fall, they were greeted by teachers who had a new trick up their sleeves: a game plan for dance education. Following a mandate from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the Department of Education created a task force that designed and implemented a Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts–Dance, a rigorous, standards-based approach to teaching dance.
The design of the dance curriculum was overseen by Joan Finkelstein, who after 12 years as the director of the Harkness Dance Center at the 92nd Street Y, now works adjacent to City Hall in the historic Tweed Building, the headquarters for the city’s education staff. As the Director of Dance Programs for the Department of Education’s Office of the Arts and Special Projects, Finkelstein is on a mission to put dance in every child’s classroom.
The Road to City Hall
Finkelstein has spent 35 years immersed in the dance community. “I have been a dancer, choreographer, the artistic director of a company, a freelance choreographer, a teacher—both in studios and as a teaching artist in public schools. I have directed a school and worked as a presenter,” she says.
Her list of accomplishments is matched by the scope of her eclectic training. Finkelstein earned both her BA and MFA in dance from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has studied modern, folk, jazz, ballet and hip hop, and learned Afro-Caribbean dance from the legendary teacher Jean-Léon Destiné. “He was a major influence on my aesthetic development,” Finkelstein says. “I responded deeply to the spiritual and cultural aspects of the dance style. They were so infused into the movement.”
As a dancer, Finkelstein worked with modern choreographers Cliff Keuter and Don Redlich, always looking for a way to learn a different style of movement. She even danced in the original Broadway cast of RAGS and in 1983, became the artistic director of the Moving Pictures Dance Company. After 22 years on the stage, Finkelstein found her way to the 92nd Street Y, where she oversaw the Harkness Dance Center, supervising the programming and initiating the Dance Education Laboratory teacher training program in 1995. Twelve successful years later, it was time for a career change.
The New Job
When the position to oversee NYC’s K–12 dance curriculum became available, Finkelstein jumped at the opportunity. “I was attracted to applying for this position because the job posting stressed that this person would bring together the education community, cultural arts community, professional dance organizations and the dance in higher education community—all to expand dance education in public schools,” she says.
Her objective was just short of epic: to create a framework for a sequential dance curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade. Finkelstein’s labor of love, the Blueprint for Dance, was published in June 2005 and is being implemented across NYC public schools during the 2005–2006 school year. “I was very excited looking at the Blueprint,” she explains. “I understood the process and the fact that there was collaboration between the Department of Education and the vast cultural resources that we uniquely have in New York City. We are the dance capital of the world. We have a depth and breadth in the artform that exists nowhere else. For the Department of Education to recognize what a treasured resource this is, and to make use of it through a collaborative creation of a curriculum, is unprecedented. It is nationally unprecedented.”
To accomplish this massive task, Finkelstein followed the models created for the teaching of Visual Arts and Music during the 2004–2005 academic year. These plans were published in June 2004 in a booklet entitled Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts. To create the Dance Blueprint, Finkelstein, along with Development Planning Co-Chairs Tina Ramirez, artistic director of Ballet Hispanico, and Jody Gottfried Arnhold, founding director of the Dance Education Lab at the 92nd Street Y, reached out to the widest range of dance professionals. Tina Curran of the Language of Dance Center, Nasha Thomas-Schmidt of Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, NYU Steinhardt School of Education’s Dance Education Program head Barbara Bashaw and National Dance Institute Artistic Director Ellen Weinstein are just a few of the more than 50 experts who came together to write, review and consult on this document.
The goal is for every elementary school child to have a sequential dance curriculum in every public school in the city. In middle school, the mandate is for all schools to offer at least two artforms and for children in middle school to have at least one year of training each in two artforms. Schools that offer two artforms choose among visual arts, music, dance and theater. If a child is particularly interested in dance, he or she should be streamed from elementary school to a middle school that has dance. Children within each region and district need to have a choice of all four artforms.
In the resulting Blueprint, there are five strands or themes that encompass knowledge: Dance-Making, Literacy in Dance, Connections, Community and Cultural Resources, and Careers and Lifelong Learning. These cover topics such as generating original choreography, learning dance history and theory, establishing interdisciplinary links between dance and other arts, connecting with the wide range of dance institutions in NYC and understanding dance as a vocation. Finkelstein’s hope is to deepen students’ understanding of the artform through partnerships with local cultural organizations, such as Ballet Hispanico, many of which were included in the formulation of the Blueprint.
The plans can be read horizontally, looking at the strands, or vertically, identifying goals or “benchmarks” that indicate what specific sets of skills students should master by the end of second, fifth, eighth and 12th grades.
This radical overhaul of the NYC dance curriculum follows decades of neglect. According to Finkelstein, “Traditionally, dance in most schools, if it was part of the program at all, was taught as part of physical education by teachers licensed to teach physical education.” She adds that while many PE teachers were capable dance teachers, dance was not seen as distinct from the rest of children’s physical education requirement. Few schools taught dance as an artform or addressed it as a viable career path.
Now, challenges abound, such as creating adequate time and space for dance. In addition, Finkelstein is up against schools that are dismissing dance teachers and cutting programs. Yet, she insists that help is on the way: “All of these issues are being addressed by the Department of Education: raising funds to build proper dance studios in schools; creative scheduling by principals to allow more time for dance instruction; promoting wise spending of Project Arts monies, used to support partnerships with arts organizations, both for professional development and for student programs; creating new paths for the training and licensing of dance teachers; enhancing ongoing professional development of current dance teachers to maximize their effectiveness in their school situation; communicating with principals and with parents to develop their awareness of the importance of dance—and all arts—education for their children and the success of their school; and raising funds for special dance initiatives.”
Another component of the Blueprint is teacher training. At presstime, two staff development days—one in June right after the Blueprint was published and one on September 7—had reached more than 225 teachers.
Moving forward, Finkelstein is planning 50 to 100 site visits to schools this year. “I’m not going to get to all 350 schools [using the Dance Blueprint that have a dance teacher on staff] this year, but this is a 10-year process. We have two more big city-wide staff development days planned, on Election Day [November 18th] and on January 30th, plus each region will add in regional staff development sessions to work on strategies that align with the Blueprint,” she says.
The Blueprint comes at a time when schools are struggling to meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has put pressure on schools to produce proficiency scores in the core subject areas, sometimes at the cost of arts programs. “The one thing I will say that is good about NCLB is that it includes arts education as a curriculum area,” Finkelstein concedes. Still, some schools have a set number of dedicated hours to classes like English and math, leaving science, social studies and arts education with less class-time. “You are dealing with hours in a day,” explains Finkelstein. “But, there are creative scheduling solutions such as using zero period in the morning, creating an arts period in a lunch hour, and using extended day. I believe there are enough hours in a day that we can grab and use for arts-based learning. Sometimes it’s hard for principals to see how to schedule their day differently, but principals who have been successful have presented to other [colleagues] how they do it.”
Cooperation and teamwork have been and will be vital to the Blueprint. This effort is spearheaded by Dr. Sharon Dunn at the NYC Department of Education’s Office of the Arts and Special Projects, and includes Paul King, Director of Theater Programs, Barbara Gurr, Director of Visual Art Programs, and Nancy Shankman, Director of Music Programs.
In addition to this workforce, there are ten Regional Arts Supervisors central to the implementation of arts programs in the public school system. “I will be working with them to support their efforts to increase and improve in-school dance programs, promote successful partnerships between schools and dance organizations, and provide professional development and other support for their region’s dance teachers,” Finkelstein says.
“We are moving quickly,” she says. “There’s a will, and there’s recognition on the Mayor’s and Chancellor’s parts that the arts are an important business in New York City. They are not only an important economic—as in job-creating—business, but they are also invaluable in terms of the image of the city. What defines New York City? Finance and the arts. New York City uniquely bears those flags for the nation.”
Real Teachers, Real Reactions: Four New York City Educators discuss the Dance Blueprint.
Lorelei Coutts, an elementary school dance teacher at P.S. 20 in Manhattan
“It’s a beautiful and comprehensive resource to have. I just received my copy, so I’ll spend the next few days learning it. I think it provides
the broad strokes for dance curriculum, but every teacher will have to adapt and modify the frameworks to their own teaching
and school environment.”
Abigail Agresta-Stratton, one of the NYC teachers who contributed to writing the Blueprint
“My focus is on getting the message out to administrators that this Blueprint will help organize and expand dance learning and make
connections across the curriculum. It’s a way for us to get on the same page and fine tune what we’re already doing in dance classrooms
throughout the city.”
Margaret Plaza, a middle school dance teacher in Chinatown
“I have been using the National Standards for Dance in planning my program. The Blueprint is more concrete and comprehensive. As
a teacher, I can apply this to my classroom more easily. It’s tailored for city students and includes NYC’s incredible arts resources and
how to use them.”
Ana Nery Fragoso, an elementary school dance teacher at P.S. 315 in Brooklyn
“Staff Development workshops for the different regions [organized as part of the Blueprint’s implementation] are helpful because you
get to work with other teachers. We share our experiences without feeling threatened. All the participants brought their own strengths
and weaknesses as teachers as well as the experience of how dance fits into the fabric of their building or school. During the workshops
we can come together with colleagues and see how some teachers can become more adept at facilitating discussions.”
Kate Mattingly has taught dance history in New York City and now teaches at Florida Atlantic University. She writes about dance for newspapers and magazines.
Photo: Joan Finkelstein at the Tweed Courthouse in Manhattan in from of Julian Opie's Sara Walking (by Steve Vaccariello)