A high school and university dance program collaborate in Washington, DC.

Students at the School Without Walls

Preparing high school seniors for college-level dance is never easy. Most students are unfamiliar with the options available, and preparing for auditions and more advanced technique is a huge undertaking. But at the School Without Walls in Washington, DC, dance teacher Heather Pultz has created a unique after-school program that introduces students to college dance early on. They meet and work with undergraduate George Washington University dance majors, attend performances and get audition feedback from GW dance department professors. “I wanted my kids to see dance as a real-world profession and a serious discipline,” she says. “The college students have a great work ethic. I wanted to encourage that academic pre-professional mind-set, and this was an easy way to foster it.”

Pultz’s program can be seen as a small-scale version of the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards’ initiative to align K–12 arts education with higher ed. One goal of the new standards for arts education is to prepare students for college-level study by creating a basis for new AP courses and exams in the arts. But Pultz has seen a more immediate benefit by taking college preparation into her own hands. Not only does she foster an awareness of college dance, she provides opportunities in the arts that her students might otherwise not experience.

A Need for Dance

Founded in 1971, the School Without Walls makes its home on the campus of GW, not far from the Kennedy Center. Over one third of the students are low-income, many of whom cannot afford dance classes outside of school. As the name suggests, the School Without Walls envisions the city as the classroom: It benefits from a close relationship with GW, which allows the high school students to enroll in university classes. And each year, 15 students simultaneously pursue a high school diploma and an associate degree through a tuition-free early college program. With Walls already committed to helping its students pursue higher education, Pultz felt it was only natural to give her students a glimpse of what college dance might hold for them.

Pultz teaches physical education and health at Walls, and though she is also licensed to teach dance, her curriculum has the capacity for only a few dance classes a year—not enough to satisfy the hunger that some of her students have for it. “I saw that I had students who were craving dance options,” she says. “So I decided I would just give the time to the kids after school.”

At first, her group of seven to eight students met for a couple of hours, two days a week for modern dance classes. More students joined in as word got out about the program, and after three years, the group has grown from eight to 28, including freshmen through seniors of all different levels. They now meet four times per week and perform annually. Pultz does this on her own time, without compensation, though she does receive a small stipend from Walls to cover costume fees.

College Collaboration

Pultz also teaches part-time at GW, where she is pursuing her MFA. So when she was looking for new choreographers to work with the Walls students, she went across the street to GW and asked undergrad students to help. These students often lead warm-up classes and review the high-schoolers’ work. Walls students can access the university studio space for classes and see undergraduate showcases. And Dana Tai Soon Burgess, chair of GW’s Department of Theater & Dance, meets occasionally with students to answer questions about college dance.

“Heather came to me to ask if students in my course, Dance in Community Settings, might be interested in working with her kids,” recalls Burgess, who informally advises Walls students on their resumés, college applications, auditions and college options. “Whenever Heather wants me to sit with a student, I’m happy to do so. It’s important to me because dance is a field of mentorship—this is how we all learned, ourselves, and I believe a one-on-one commitment is the best way to be effective.

Pultz also encourages her students to choreograph and perform their own solos. When they’re ready, she asks professors from GW to observe and critique the pieces, and she includes the stronger work in her spring showcase.

“It’s something any teacher could do anywhere,” she says. “A lot of kids perform good choreography, but how many are prepared to perform the kind of polished solo they might need for an audition? You can help students learn a variation that’s appropriate, help them work on it over several months and then invite three or four college professors to give feedback on each solo. This way, your students are being thoroughly prepared for the way that a professor might view their work.”

Even if you’re not lucky enough to share a campus with a university dance program, you can still reach out to college faculty with a little help from technology. “If you can’t get a professor to come in-house, you could videotape your students’ solos and send them via Vimeo or YouTube, then arrange a Skype chat with a professor,” Pultz says.

Planning for the Future

As the program evolves, Pultz has plans for the future. A recent Kennedy Center Partnership grant has given the kids access to performances and master classes at the Kennedy Center. Pultz wants to go even further and formally re-create the program as a nonprofit—more fundraising will help bolster the current $750-a-year budget. “Then we would be able to rent space at the Kennedy Center and pay for the annual spring showcase,” she says.

But even after only three years, Pultz is seeing results. All three high school seniors that she has taught have gone on to major or minor in dance in college. And other students teach dance at local summer camps, studios and elementary schools, or find summer internships in dance. “The program is really a boost for their confidence,” she says. “And I tell them that working four days a week on dance consistently is great training—that they’re ready for the next leg of their adventure at college.” DT 

Mary Ellen Hunt is a former dancer, now teacher, in San Francisco. 

Photo by Jeff Nold, courtesy of Heather Pultz

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