Dance Your Troubles Away

In Arizona, dance educators are developing a curriculum to tackle teen issues.

A dance class at Xavier College Preparatory High School

After a few weeks working in a tough, inner-city high school in Salt Lake City, Becky Dyer realized her years of teaching dance in universities and higher-income school districts hadn’t prepared her to meet her new students’ needs. In this unfamiliar setting, gang fights broke out during her class, and even when there wasn’t outright violence, the students were angry and rebellious, and racial tensions ran high. She’d reached the bottom of her bag of pedagogical tricks and was still, by her account, “failing terribly.” So instead of avoiding her students’ intense personal needs, Dyer began planning classes that let students voice their frustrations and fears and explore them using dance.

Before long, disruptive and disinterested students began to participate in class. In her dance journal, one student wrote, “I learned to express my feelings without yelling or crying.” Another wrote, “When I did other peoples’ movement, it made me want to know who they were inside.” By engaging in dance exercises driven by their own experiences, the students grew both artistically and socially.

The results were so positive that Dyer decided to examine and develop them in a doctoral program. Eight years later, after earning her PhD and becoming a full-time dance faculty member at Arizona State University, she launched the Arizona Dance Educators Action Research Project to apply her approach more broadly. Dyer and the eight Phoenix-area high school dance teachers involved in the project have been working together for three years to design a curriculum that develops good people, as well as good dancers, and is flexible enough to serve teens from a variety of backgrounds.

The teachers began by creating a list of social and emotional goals that they believed could be fostered through dance, including improved self-awareness, confidence, empathy for alternative perspectives, judgment and moral reasoning skills. They then developed an overarching framework to give lessons a logical progression. The first unit focuses on identity and self-image; the next on relationships with others; the third on differences, tensions and resolving conflicts; and the last on questioning and transforming perspectives and world views. The teachers try different approaches to address these issues in their classes and meet once a month to discuss the results.

The completed curriculum will include goals, units and sample lesson plans. But Dyer hopes that teachers who use it will adapt the components to fit their students’ individual needs and concerns. Below, two of the curriculum’s developers discuss how they have applied it successfully at two very different schools.

South Mountain High School

Low-income public school

Upon discovering that nine students in the school’s magnet dance program were pregnant, dance teacher Susan Griffin decided to create a piece that would require her students—she happened to have a class of all girls—to investigate teen pregnancy through personal stories. She hoped it would give them a better understanding of the issues, facts and realities surrounding teen pregnancy, and a clearer sense of their own personal beliefs and responses to it.

Her students interviewed teenage mothers and, with Griffin’s guidance, researched teen pregnancy statistics. They used all of this information to create movement. In a phrase about how it would feel to hear they were pregnant, the dancers, starting at their centers, reached out for help. A later section that focused on caring for a baby began with a gentle cradling movement and evolved into a hands-on-head gesture of anguish. Griffin says that while her students were working on the piece, they thought about pregnancy in a deeper way, and the exercise made them more aware of the feelings of pregnant classmates.

Griffin also used movement when a feud developed between dance students from two different racial groups. As the anger between the groups grew, she realized the students simply had no filter; when provoked, they responded instantly. So she used an improvisation exercise to help them practice controlling their impulses [see sidebar]. The exercise helped build bridges. Eventually, some students were able to choose a partner from the opposing group when instructed to work with someone new. And recently, when Griffin surveyed them on the topic, almost all the students reported that they were now able to work well with any other classmate.

Xavier College Preparatory High School

Private Catholic girls school

Mary Anne Fernandez Herding and Kelly Martell Scovel, Xavier’s dance teachers, say their students struggle with common teenage challenges: peer pressure, family break-ups, bullying and, in particular, competition. “Girls are naturally cliquey and tend to exclude peers,” Herding says. So she and Scovel have developed dance class practices designed to encourage students to connect with each other and to help each student feel like an important part of a community. Scovel’s classes begin with a designated “circle time,” when students sit together and talk about how they are, which she says helps them start class unified. And both teachers find times during the warm-up for partner work, which facilitates interaction.

Last year, inspired by a lesson Dyer designed for her college students, Scovel created what she called the “I Am” project, which encouraged her dancers to explore their individuality while simultaneously recognizing points of connection with peers. Each dancer began by describing herself in written words and created movement inspired by the writing. Scovel helped students recognize adjectives, feelings and experiences they had in common and created a unison dance phrase based on these. They put all the material together to create a performance piece [see sidebar].

Scovel believes her students are benefiting from being given more opportunities to connect (though the results seem subtler than Griffin’s). But the most significant shift has been a personal one. “I feel a lot more connected to my students now,” she says. “By giving them a bigger role, I’ve become more of a facilitator. I feel like I’m part of the group rather than just the leader.”

“Being a dance teacher gives you a privilege other teachers don’t have,” says Scovel. “You can teach your subject—good dance technique and artistry—while also using it to explore things that are more meaningful.” For more information on the project, e-mail Becky.Dyer@asu.edu. DT

In the Classroom

When Susan Griffin’s students were involved in a racially motivated conflict, she used the following improv exercise to help them practice impulse control:

  • Griffin asked students to improvise a particular shape, such as a wide or a tall shape.

  • She asked them to create shapes again, but told them not to move on their first impulse—to wait a beat and use the second idea that came to them.

  • She paired up her students and had them improvise a movement dialogue. The first student created a shape and her partner immediately responded with another. The resulting duets looked confrontational because students tended to respond to what they thought the movement meant. A raised hand might lead a partner to block it, for example.

  • They improvised movement dialogues again, but the responding partner waited a beat before creating his or her shape. Griffin gave suggestions like, “Think about using a shape that contrasts with what your partner did.” As she pointed out to the students, the second duets were much richer, choreographically, because students responded to the movement shape and quality rather than its meaning. For example, if their partner moved percussively, the response might be sinuous.

  • Griffin had each student switch partners numerous times, so that eventually they had to pair up with students from the opposing side of the conflict.

Kelly Scovel noticed a lot of competition among her students, so she developed the “I Am” project to show them that they’re more alike than they may have thought. Here’s how it works:

  • Each student begins by writing 10 descriptive words about herself.

  • Have the students create a movement for each of their words and string them together to make short solos.

  • To point out commonalities, tally up adjectives used by multiple people (i.e., “Caring—12, Smart—6”) and create a unison dance phrase based on these words.

  • Have each student write a reflective essay in which they answer questions about their individuality, like “What is my best quality?” “What am I most proud of?” “What stereotypes are placed on me?” “Have I ever stereotyped someone else?” and “What do my parents expect of me?”

  • Without saying who wrote what, copy sentences from each essay on the board.

  • Have the students choose a couple of sentences they connect with that aren’t their own, and create movement to represent the words.

  • Craft a performance piece using dance phrases spawned by the exercise.

Janet Weeks is editor of the Dance Magazine College Guide.

Photo by Mary K. Farrington-Lorch, courtesy of Xavier College Prep

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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