A small high school in the Bronx offers students a complete dance curriculum.
Before the school day begins, Lisa Clark is already hard at work with students.
At 7:45 am on a Wednesday, Lisa Clark’s classroom is flooded with sunlight and filled with nearly 20 freshmen. The students—all of whom are at Clark’s optional “zero period” open rehearsal—are practicing a piece about a pack of lionesses hunting a phoenix. Leaping and running in a large circle around her, the students concentrate on perfecting their arm placement and pointing their toes as they spring forward, trying to avoid colliding with one another. “I love it when you figure it out for yourself!” Clark cheers.
Clark’s classroom is the sole dance studio at the High School for Violin and Dance (HSVD), one of four small public schools on the South Bronx Morris campus. The school was founded in 2002, after the Morris HS campus was divided into smaller schools in an effort to improve lagging graduation rates. HSVD was created to provide students with a more intimate learning environment that allows for individualized attention, and to expose minority and low-income Bronx students to the performing arts. (Each of the four small schools has a unique focus, such as developing leadership skills or enhancing cultural awareness.) All HSVD freshmen take violin and dance—the two passions of the school’s founders—and, by the end of their first year, are selected by the performing arts teachers to major in one or both, based on interest and skill level.
Clark, the dance program’s head and only full-time teacher, has long been involved with arts education, including work with the New York State Alliance for Arts Education and the Bronx Council on the Arts. She has taught students from various backgrounds, but HSVD provided a new challenge: Students who wish to attend HSVD submit an application (though they don’t have to audition) and most students who enter the school have no formal experience in dance or music. “I am in a community of kids who love hip hop,” Clark says. “I knew they could dance, but I thought they needed to be exposed to a broader, more classical platform as well.” Over the four years she has taught at HSVD, she has developed a rigorous program that both provides technical training and instills a love of dance.
In addition to a regular academic course load, freshmen take an hour each of violin and dance four or five days a week. Clark teaches freshmen ballet to provide the groundwork that will help them learn other styles. The students begin at the barre, learning the traditional progression from pliés through battements. By the end of the first month, she says students start to understand the way the steps work together. She then begins talking about placement, balance, timing and vocabulary, and she supplements their physical practice with in-class lessons about dance history, nutrition and stretching.
By sophomore year, roughly half of the school’s 259 students have become dance majors and begin a more structured curriculum of lyrical and Graham, Dunham and Horton techniques. With the fundamentals of ballet and modern under their belts, juniors move on to jazz and hip hop, and seniors learn tap, clogging, African and Irish step dancing.
Though Clark’s curriculum provides a classical framework, she also emphasizes creativity, particularly with her freshman classes. “I allow them to come in and do their own choreographing because I want to saturate them with dance,” she says. “They can just create. I’m not worried about if their feet are pointed or if their backs are straight.” It is this aspect of Clark’s approach that comes across most clearly in her studio. She allows her students to be silly at times, encourages them to have fun and lets them contribute choreography ideas. By giving the students the freedom to express themselves and take ownership of their classroom experience, she has developed a strong connection with the young dancers.
Assistant Principal Franklin Sim notes the influence this relationship has on the students’ academic success. “Students need someone they connect to in the school, some purpose to drive them to want to be here,” he says. “The arts department provides those opportunities for a lot of our students.” Before the Morris campus was divided into smaller schools, the graduation rate was 25 percent. Today, Sim says that over 80 percent of HSVD students graduate.
Clark’s zero period gives her students extra time to rehearse. She also schedules informal monthly performances for each class and, twice a month, takes her students to see dance performances around the city—everything from New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake to the Trisha Brown Dance Company. “The more they are exposed to dance,” Clark says, “the more they are going to understand that it is bigger than the classroom.”
Her efforts have paid off. Despite their relatively late introduction to dance, Clark’s students have received scholarships from Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and Young Dancemakers, and some have gone on to college dance programs. And although Clark always has an eye out for her students’ futures, posting audition opportunities in her hallway, holding mock auditions and working before and after school to fine-tune their technique, she ultimately measures her success by the students’ deep connection with dance. “They can’t stop,” she says. “They’re moving through the hallway dancing. They tell me they’ve been dancing all weekend and thinking about choreography, and they say, “Miss Clark, I practiced and I got it.’” DT
Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.
Photo by Abby Margulies