Finding the Patterns

An innovative way to learn math and music with movement

A group of young students is working to form a circle, giggling as they cross arms and reach for one another’s hands. One girl stands in the center as the children begin to rotate around her. It looks like they’re doing a simple dance, but that’s not the case. These dancers are actually learning about math as they pretend to be points of a circle, trying to keep an equal distance from the girl in the center.

The class is M3 = Math x Music x Movement, a summer enrichment program in which children discover mathematical patterns through dance and music. They explore such concepts as spatial arrays, jumping fractions and symmetric duets in an environment where they can take creative risks without feeling wrong. “The class does not focus on ‘getting an answer’ but rather discovering connections,” says instructor Janet Blenheim. Her program combines dance and academic components to show how patterns are the common denominator for math, music and movement.

Students of Janet Blenheim’s summer enrichment program learn geometry via dance.

The Roots of M3

Blenheim started teaching the class at Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, just two years ago, but her work integrating math and movement has been evolving for several decades. She danced professionally before earning a double degree in dance and elementary education, and she went on to teach creative movement and ballet at all levels. Now a Japan Fulbright Scholar and head of the K–5 Math Department at the School District of Upper Dublin in Pennsylvania, Blenheim is developing a repertory of Math & Movement lessons integrated with children’s math literature. “I believe students who are physically and cognitively engaged develop a deeper and lasting understanding,” she says. “The Chinese proverb I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand is my mantra.”

Lisa Collins Vidnovic, director of MBA, has known Blenheim for 25 years and is thrilled to be able to offer her school as a platform for the program. “We share a passion for dance and education, and different ways that we can expose all children to math and literature,” says Vidnovic. “Some children just learn better while they’re moving.”

M3 is designed for children entering second, third and fourth grades, but it has the potential to adapt to a variety of ages and levels. Students are on their feet using elastic to form geometric shapes, arranging polygons into patterns and choreographing dances to fit musical phrases. In the two-and-a-half-hour class, five days a week, there is little inactivity.

Class Structure

The first day, Blenheim has children introduce themselves by clapping the syllables of their name and having the group echo in response. “Then I introduce and model variations of pitch, tempo, accent, pattern (repeating a syllable) and movement (clap, snap or stamp),” she explains. “We repeat the name echo activity, but with choices and infinite variations.” Blenheim believes that the creative process flourishes when you establish structure and allow children variety or choice.

Her class follows a consistent structure starting with a body warm-up to music by composers such as Scott Joplin. She then gives a “brain warm-up,” a problem or puzzle for the students to consider. They might work with partners and try to arrange 16 dancers in an array formation, using colored tiles to represent their costumes. Blenheim’s instruction is: “The costume designer insists on a different colored costume in every row, column and diagonal.” The children organize their arrays and then record their thinking on paper handouts.

Each class is based on a theme or essential question, such as: What are polygons and where do you see them in everyday life? Blenheim gives a brief lesson about geometry terms and has the children model concepts with their arms and copy movements while saying vocabulary words aloud. “I choreograph the timing and activities of the classes to keep them engaged without exhausting them physically or mentally,” she says.

Choreographers/Mathematicians

Before the end of class, students are creating dances and counting music in multiples of threes and fours. One exercise has them moving across the floor in a “run, run, leap” pattern, alternating right and left, shouting out multiples of three. Later, Blenheim teaches musical terms by having everyone count aloud: softly (piano) 1, 2, loudly (forte) 3…until they reach 30.

“A lot of learning math is seeing the patterns involved,” says Vidnovic. “Janet has them choreograph a lot, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.” Vidnovic is hopeful that the M3 program will help students have a better understanding of choreography in their dance classes and rehearsals. “In general, it’s hard to get children to envision the spatial dilemma,” she says, “and how they should visualize the stage, the space they’re dancing in and their place in it.”

So far, parents and children are enthusiastic about the program, and Blenheim takes pride when she sees her students quantifying everything from jumps and turns to body angles by degrees. “The children are thrilled to dance a subject that is traditionally done seated at a desk with paper and pencil,” she says. “Parents are always curious about how I could possibly combine three distinct disciplines. The lightbulb goes off when I explain that the common denominator is patterns.” DT

Julie Diana retired as principal dancer from the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014.

Photos by Janet Blenheim, courtesy of M3= Math x Music x Movement

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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