As director of the dance education master's degree program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, Deborah Damast is responsible for shaping the next generation of dance teachers. To do that to the best of her ability, she stays curious—and busy. On top of her full-time job in higher ed, she's currently working part-time toward her doctorate in dance education at Columbia University's Teachers College.
But perhaps even more telling about her passion for the field is that she still finds time to teach creative movement three mornings a week at Manhattan's Little Red School House and to direct a summer workshop at The Yard on Martha's Vineyard. "Teaching young children keeps me relevant," Damast says. "Kids change. Pedagogy changes. When I'm teaching educators, I want to have real stories to tell."
Chianan Yen, courtesy NYU Steinhardt
Her boundless energy is one of her hallmarks, along with a unique ability to bring people together. "Deborah wants to know what's going on in every classroom," says her NYU colleague Patricia Cohen. "She wants to understand and work with what we all—students and faculty—are bringing to the table. She listens, and then she acts. She's a visionary."
Damast's childhood training was primarily in classical ballet. Then, at SUNY Purchase in Purchase, New York, she was immersed in modern dance and discovered a passion for choreography. After graduating, she moved to New York City, where she performed for independent choreographers and presented her own work.
She also launched her teaching career, starting with open-level modern for adults at Peridance. "One day, one of the kids' teachers was out, so they sent me into a class of 3-year-olds," she says. "I didn't know what to do! It was humbling and eye-opening." She began observing her fellow teachers, taking copious notes. Soon, she was regularly subbing for the children's program faculty. "Before I knew it, I was teaching all over the city: Peridance, the 92nd Street Y, daycares, shelters, a VA hospital," she says. "I worked with people of all ages. The more I taught, the more I saw the through lines—the artistry, culture and connections to the world that are there whether you're 4 or 64 years old."
Joseph Bukenya, courtesy Damast
When she was invited to take a teacher-training course through the 92nd Street Y's Dance Education Laboratory, "I became excited by the philosophy of the work," Damast says. "That course gave me a language to talk about what I was doing, and it prompted me to get my master's in dance education at NYU."
Upon graduation in 2002, she joined the NYU Steinhardt faculty as a "super-adjunct," teaching as well as directing performances and the Kaleidoscope Dancers, a service-learning course that partners with public schools. In 2010, she became full-time faculty, and in 2018, she took over as program director. Now, in addition to her administrative duties, Damast teaches six courses a year, including Teaching Creative Movement. She also heads up a January study-abroad course in Uganda, now in its 15th year, which pairs NYU students with Ugandan dance educators to collaborate on lesson plans and teach local children.
Looking forward, Damast hopes to diversify the curriculum within her program, adding more culturally relevant pedagogy. "We have to make sure that everybody has access to discover the joy of dancing," she says. Because she's active in teacher training for the NYC Department of Education, she's uniquely positioned to lead the way: "What's happening in higher ed informs public schools. What's happening in public schools informs advocacy and public policy. In the public sector, we can provide professional development for private sector teachers. It's about creating avenues for dialogue and opportunity. That's the mission."