Mentoring for new K–12 dance teachers

Susan Rainey with her PS 122 middle school students

This month, plenty of new K–12 dance teachers will anxiously make their classroom debuts. Susan Rainey, who starts her third year  as a full-time dance teacher at PS 122 middle school in Queens this fall, remembers her first-day jitters all too well. But thanks to a New York City Department of Education mentoring program, she’s had plenty of backstage support and peer guidance during her early years—even though she’s the only dance teacher in her school.

The Arnhold New Dance Teacher Support Program was established two years ago by Joan Finkelstein, director of dance at the New York City Department of Education, and Jody Arnhold, who co-founded the Dance Education Laboratory at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center with Finkelstein. The program, offered to all of the city’s new dance teachers, pairs seasoned teachers with those just starting out. “The first or second year for any teacher is challenging,” says Finkelstein. “But it’s particularly challenging for teachers of dance. Often they are the only ones in the building who are teaching that content area.” Having a mentor eases the transition from student to full-time teacher and provides practical advice that only years of experience in a public school dance classroom can provide. “It’s so hard to begin. It’s important to have help and to have someone to talk to,” says Arnhold.

Funded by The Arnhold Foundation, the program provides first- and second-year dance teachers with three classroom visits followed by assessment sessions. The visits are spaced throughout the school year so that teachers have time to implement their mentor’s suggestions effectively. Each teacher also receives a toolkit of materials, including books, DVDs and dance-motif notation cards.

To help launch and enhance the new teacher’s program, the school also receives a stipend that can be used to purchase additional materials, sign up for professional development workshops, bring in guest artists or take students to a concert. So far the program has served 27 new teachers and currently has four mentors (including Arnhold), all of whom are seasoned dance educators with years of experience and wisdom to share.

Of the many challenges that new teachers face, classroom management often ranks at the top of the list. “New dance teachers have so much theory, but it’s kind of a shock to be in your own classroom,” says Arnhold, where there are all sorts of practical matters that can throw a new teacher off. “How do you get kids in and out of the classroom? Where do their shoes and socks go? Who should not sit next to each other? Mentors can help with these simple strategies, which are really not so simple,” says Arnhold.

One of the four mentors is Mary Barnett, whose long history in the field includes professional work with the Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham and Lar Lubovitch companies, as well as 12 years of teaching at Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I hear that discipline is a problem,” Barnett says. “After I observe the class, however, I find that it’s very seldom a real discipline problem. It’s actually an organizational problem.” As a mentor, she helps new teachers refine their class design in ways that draw students in and keep them engaged, thus reducing the need for discipline.

“Mary really helped me structure my classes—from the warm-up, to the theme for the day, to the culminating activity,” says Rainey. “She helped me figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to introduce and have students know by the end of each unit. Before Mary’s visits, I was trying to do too much in too short an amount of time.” But based on Barnett’s advice, Rainey reduced the number of units she had originally planned and doubled the time she spent exploring the material of the remaining units. “I made the units longer so I could get more accomplished within each one and the kids would have more time to absorb the information. In a sense, I’m doing more by doing less,” she says.

One of Rainey’s goals in restructuring her lessons was to put greater focus on technique. Since some of her students had no dance experience, she had been fearful of demanding too much from them. She had begun the year with an improvisational warm-up instead of a series of set exercises. “I would call out different ways to move across the floor, but I didn’t incorporate technique,” says Rainey. Barnett and Rainey devised a warm-up combining ballet exercises with Horton technique. Barnett also encouraged Rainey to identify specific technical skills for each unit and to build those skills into her class from the warm-up through the floor exercises and into student choreography projects. “Many of my students had difficulty pointing their feet in passé, for example. So, during the warm-up, we’d start with a plié and then have them point their foot at the ankle and then bring their foot up to the knee. After practicing that a few times, we’d develop it further by adding a passé relevé,” Rainey explains. “Later in class, we’d work on spotting and turning by practicing plié passé in four directions, followed by plié relevé in four directions, and, finally, by a plié into a passé turn.”

Rainey found that her students were excited about incorporating new technical skills into their own choreography and that their overall attitude improved. “They liked the challenge of learning technique. It kept them engaged and better behaved because they were focusing on something specific that enhanced them and made them better dancers,” Rainey says. “Students like being successful and I think they felt successful in my class.”

As a result of her mentorship, Rainey is starting the new school year with clear objectives for her students and a better sense of how to design engaging units. “I definitely feel more confident about my classroom management skills and the quality of education that I’m offering,” she says. “I know that my students are walking away with something—whether it is stronger technique or simply a feeling of being more comfortable in their bodies and more confident in themselves.” DT

 

Darrah Carr is a New York–based choreographer, educator and writer active in both the Irish and modern dance communities.

Photo by Donnelly Marks, courtesy of Susan Rainey

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo Courtesy of Ballet Next

In 2011, when former American Ballet Theatre principal Michele Wiles departed the company and formed BalletNext, she found an artistic freedom she'd been longing for. Along with new collaborations with choreographers and musicians, she began working with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who introduced her to the multilayered sounds of jazz. "The dancers are another instrument to a jazz musician," says Wiles. Pairing this music genre with her classical foundation has been pivotal in defining her style. "I have this classical facility, but my mind is more contemporary. Jazz is a good intersection for my work," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Rachel Papo

Martin Harvey brought a little movie star charm into morning ballet class at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. (His acting credits include Gossip Girls, All My Children, Dirty Dancing, A Chorus Line, Carousel, plus Metropolitan Opera productions of Carmen and Manon Lescaut.) Educated at the Royal Ballet School in London, he danced many principal roles for The Royal Ballet during his 12-year career.

Mark Your Calendar

Join us in Long Beach, CA, July 26–28, or in NYC, August 1–3, for our 2019 Dance Teacher Summit.

Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What suggestions do you have for dancers to get their shoulder blades to lie flat on their backs?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Sarah Ash, courtesy of Larkin Dance

Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."

For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Gandarillas

In Macarena Gandarillas' jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, "Never underestimate the power of determination." This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described "danceaholic" such an impactful teacher.

When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. "There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school," she says. "But with dance I could communicate with my body. I'd finally found my voice."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Is teaching for an after-school program a good way to find a job in K–12?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Inspire School of Arts and Sciences

It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Jarrah Myles' first-period choreography students were in last-minute rehearsals for their fall dance concert that evening. "All of a sudden my students' phones started ringing like crazy," says Myles, a teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a Chico, California, high school whose dance and theater programs Myles helped establish in 2010. "And once they answered, I saw these tragic faces staring back at me."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox