Building Joy and Grit

New York City’s highly successful Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance

Dance students in action at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts

As she looks back over her past nine years as director of dance for New York City public schools, Joan Finkelstein has a lot to be proud of. In a city that has no shortage of dance, bringing the artform to schoolchildren might seem easy. But her task wasn’t just to make sure all public school kids were exposed to dance. It was to provide students with a sequential, standards-based, arts-focused dance education. Now, almost a decade later, New York City students are delving deeply into choreography, technique, critique and analysis, documentation and dance history.

When she took the job, Finkelstein knew that she’d have a wealth of dance talent to work with. The trick was to give all the dance teachers working in the city’s schools a shared sense of direction. She began by forming a committee of dance educators and members of the city’s larger dance community to develop a Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance. The document provided public school dance teachers with a common reference point, structure and benchmarked dance goals specific enough to make sequential learning possible, yet broad enough to allow individual teachers to develop lessons based on their passions and strengths.

But encouraging a unified dance program to take root and grow took more than a document. It was necessary to gather the city’s far-flung dance teachers so they could learn from one another. Again Finkelstein formed a committee—this time to plan professional development workshops. Over the past nine years, 60 of these workshops have been given. “Dance teachers are often alone in their subject area in their schools,” says Finkelstein. “They need that bubbling up of ideas that comes from having a community, a shared language, connections.”

Joan Finkelstein

The most recent workshop, held in early June, focused on the hula and Polynesian culture. Teachers analyzed effective methods of learning and teaching the technique, including where to find additional resources and guest artists. The workshops also emphasize practices that are a priority for the Department of Education—backward curriculum design or the common core standards. Teachers come away armed with Blueprint-aligned tools, including lesson plans, strategies and assessments.

Thanks to the Blueprint, the city’s dance educators are also better able to assess their students, since, without shared goals and a sequential plan, it was difficult to meaningfully evaluate progress. High school students who have completed a dance major sequence, for instance, now take the NYC Comprehensive Dance Examination to evaluate performance, choreography, research and general dance knowledge. Those who pass (including a written test) and have at least 10 dance credits receive a Chancellor’s Arts Endorsed Diploma.

The Blueprint also helped the city secure two competitive grants in 2010, one of which, Investing in Innovation, was given to only three arts education organizations. The $5.5 million from both grants pays for a five-year study to develop assessment tools and strategies and to translate the results into effective classroom practices. “The question is how can data enlighten teachers about what their students need,” says Finkelstein. “For example, maybe your students are great at picking up combinations but can’t create work, or maybe they understand how to use space but not dynamics.”

The real success of the Blueprint is perhaps most evident in the increasing ranks of dance teachers. Since inception, the number of public school dance educators grew from 135 to more than 200—despite the economic downturn. Finkelstein is a tireless advocate in this regard, continually explaining dance’s value to principals whose hiring budgets are tight. She proactively sends NYC principals the resumés of all newly certified K–12 dance teachers and repeatedly follows up with any school leader who expresses interest. Once new teachers are hired, they are welcomed into the fold with both support and resources. Rookies receive two years of mentoring from an experienced dance teacher, subsidized continuing education and a tool chest that includes books on a variety of dance topics, DVDs, Move Cubes, a Laban chart and notation cards.

With this kind of success, one wonders what more Finkelstein might hope to achieve as she enters her second decade in the job. Not one to think small, her goal is to provide every primary public school child in the city with a high-quality, sequential dance education and every older child with the option of choosing dance in the upper grades. “It’s their right,” she says. “We are in danger of becoming a society divorced from our bodies. Dance isn’t only physical. It’s an expressive artform. It requires higher-order thinking, teamwork and effective, repetitive practice. Disciplined dance study builds grit, which is lauded as a prime component of success. Joy and grit—dance builds both.” DT

Janet Weeks is a former Dance Teacher editor who is earning a degree in early childhood special education from Hunter College.

Photos by Catherine Brikke, courtesy of NYC Department of Education

Dance Teachers Trending
"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

Keep reading...
Site Network

2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Getty Images

Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Kensington Macmillen in class at CPYB. Photo by Joel Thomas Photography, courtesy of CPYB

Last year, Kensington MacMillen auditioned for summer programs away from home for the first time. A longtime Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student, MacMillen had spent previous summers at her home studio, but now she was ready to branch out. After auditioning for three programs, her first response was a rejection from Miami City Ballet.

"A bunch of people from here had gotten in, and I didn't," she says. "So then you just kind of panic." She was still waiting to hear from the other programs and worried that she'd have nowhere to go.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Physical therapist Meredith Butulis in action. Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Orthopedics

After a long tennis match or a basketball game, elite athletes often head straight to the locker room and hit the exercise bike. On first thought, this might seem to be overtraining, but in fact, they are pedaling as a way to cool down properly.

"All of our blood vessels get dilated and blood goes out to muscles when we are doing cardiovascular work," says Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. "The blood goes mostly to the leg muscles, and blood pooling there is a real phenomenon. If your blood doesn't get back to the heart and brain, you can pass out."

She goes on to explain there are two ways to recover from an intense workout: actively, using a low-intensity movement to gradually bring the heart rate down, or passively, with no activity at all. The latter requires little explanation—how many times have you seen a dancer do a run-through and follow it up by sitting down on the side of the studio in a static stretch? But for many reasons, including the real possibility of blood pooling that Butulis describes, a passive recovery is not the best choice for dancers.

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox