Dance Teachers Trending

Empowering Students With Dance at a Juvenile Detention Center

Ilana Morgan teaching class with seniors. Photo courtesy of Morgan

When Ilana Morgan earned her PhD from Texas Woman's University in 2015, she was eager to serve her community of Denton, Texas. She crossed paths with the Denton County Juvenile Detention Center high school principal Anthony Sims and proposed to bring dance to the school's detained youth. After a year and half of planning, that interest became reality.

Fast-forward almost four years and Morgan has become a vital participant in the Denton County Courage to Change Program (CTC), changing the lives of detained youth, ages 13 to 18, by giving them an opportunity to be creative, collaborative and autonomous in a restrictive setting. By meeting students where they are, offering them the chance to take risks and make choices, and fostering an accepting learning environment, Morgan helps her students build a sense of self-worth through dance.


An Atypical Dance Space

Walking into the center, it might be difficult to imagine it as a place for free expression and collaboration. Students wear identical uniforms. They have to walk in a line and keep their arms crossed. They aren't allowed to talk without permission. They have to have their hair pulled back at all times and can't even adjust their ponytails without permission. "Detention centers across the country vary in drastic ways, but this one is very restrictive," says Morgan.

Most students at the center are there for 6 to 12 months for marijuana- or minor-theft-related charges. A handful get detained to escape trauma or abuse at home. Through CTC they receive schooling, housing, medical care, meals and counseling. Students take physical education and art classes, but Morgan's arrival was the school's first encounter with dance education. "In the Courage to Change Program, they're really wanting students to envision themselves as successful people now and in the future," says Morgan. "I think that's something that dance can speak to."

Creating Is Key

Morgan's classes are composition-based with a dance technique warm-up. Once a week for 25 to 45 minutes, students do a short warm-up of their choice and then participate in individual and group choreographic assignments.

Morgan leads activities where students are challenged to generate movement from their feelings, memories or observations of objects, their environment or visual art works. In one activity, they made "power poems." Morgan had students think about a proud moment that makes them feel powerful and then write a cinquain poem based on that memory. They then had to create short phrases based on the poems, teach them to one another and then put them together in a longer sequence.

"My main goal is that they have an experience in which who they are as a person is valued, particularly in a collaborative creative endeavor," says Morgan. "I say creative endeavor, because one semester I had a student who didn't want to dance. She wanted to sing, so we made room for that."

A Teacher's Trials

Encouraging choice-making in an environment where students have far fewer choices is a challenge. "They don't have a lot of choices all day, and then all of a sudden here I am asking them, 'What will you do?' 'What do you want?' 'What will you say?'" It can be confusing or even anxiety-provoking initially. Students are timid at first, but they eventually loosen up and enjoy themselves in her class.

The idea of being under surveillance at all times is another issue unique to these students. "When students feel that they are being watched by guards or cameras, how do I encourage them to take risks, fail or be silly in the moment?" At every class session, the P.E. teacher and at least one juvenile supervision officer are present in the gym where she teaches.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for Morgan as a dance teacher in this setting is the prohibition of any form of physical contact. "This is a no-touch facility. No one at any time can touch at all. It's a big deal," she says. "Figuring out how to teach dance and choreography—thinking about nearness and timing, but never ever touching—is a challenge."

Fostering Positivity

Threaded throughout her dance curriculum are important lessons on respect, being open and accepting of others and using positive language. With each group of students, Morgan and her students create a class agreement based on these values. The students define what those look like when implemented and write their agreement on a large sheet of paper on the wall to be read at the start of each class.

Over the course of her two years teaching at the detention center, Morgan has seen the myriad ways that dance empowers this specific population. Students build self-esteem, confidence and positive relationships to others through creating together. "I have seen students stand taller and take risks in a way that they don't at the beginning. They take risks in terms of their negotiation and collaboration skills, but also in the way that they're embodying who they are as a person through movement."

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
Getty Images

Dancers certainly don't need anyone to tell them how physical their profession is. But now, we have the data to prove it.

Researchers at InsuranceProviders.com analyzed data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a national organization developed through support from the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, to determine the 20 most physically demanding jobs in the country. They analyzed the level of strength, stamina, flexibility and coordination required for a host of jobs, and each category was assigned

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: How do you approach gender when teaching in 2020? When I was training, male dancers were encouraged to make their movement masculine, while female dancers were encouraged to keep their movement feminine. Today, gender has become much more fluid, and the line between masculine and feminine performance has blurred. How does that impact the way we should be teaching?

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Going upside down can be scary. It's spatially bewildering, and young students who have spent their lives upright often lack the strength required to feel confident putting their weight on their hands. But, don't fret! There are safe and pleasant ways to build the muscle and the might for dynamite inversions.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

I love this level. I see it as the true origin of a student's dance journey. Intermediate students have bought in, caught the fever, chosen to move beyond inquiry about dance to investment in dance. They are yearning to advance past their beginner training and label.

As teachers, we begin to set more stringent expectations for them to commit to class, take ownership of their learning, and comprehend more terminology and skills. Yet, they are still a bit disheveled in their movement and engagement. They still sometimes forget their dance pants and confuse upstage with downstage. Some of them are still, well, terrified.

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...
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of PNB School

Naomi Glass, teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, knows firsthand the advantages and challenges of hypermobility. As a young dancer, she was told to keep her hyperextended knees in a straight position far from her full range of motion. "It felt too bent to me," she says. "But once I was able to access my inner thighs and rotators, I found strength and stability and could still use the line that I wanted."

Hypermobility occurs when joints exceed the normal range of motion. Dancers can have hypermobility in specific joints, like their knees, or they can have generalized laxity throughout their bodies (which is often measured using the Beighton system—see below). While this condition may enable students to create beautiful aesthetic lines, it can also increase risk for injury. Help dancers gain the strength they need to stay healthy while making the most of their hypermobility.

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...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox