Making a case for world-dance units

Sherone Price at the American Dance Festival

Students today live in a different world from those five years ago. Dance is on nearly every TV station, and YouTube has revolutionized the accessibility of dance, especially hip hop. Nearly every student comes into the K–12 classroom with some experience or opinion of dance—though usually not in ballet, modern or improvisation, the forms traditionally taught in public schools.

“We don’t teach in a vacuum any longer,” says Marty Sprague, a veteran K–12 teacher currently at the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex High School in Rhode Island. Sprague began her focus on world dance to further her school’s cross-cultural mission. But like others, she has found that bringing world dance into the classroom complements the increasing popularity and availability of styles like hip hop and salsa outside it.

Cultural Connections

Today’s hip-hop, musical theater, jazz and even ballet choreographers (à la Jirí Kylián) draw strongly from world dance, particularly African and Latin forms. These styles feel very immediate to students, who can then be intrigued to discover that their ancestors danced nearly the same moves that are popular today. “Krumping, a lot of the b-boy work, and even the isolations and ball changes of jazz are deeply rooted in African dance,” says Sherone Price, who teaches West African dance through outreach programs hosted by the American Dance Festival. “Kids say, ‘Oh wow, that looks like this!’ And you can say, ‘This is where that came from.’”

Opening a world-dance unit by having students research the dance styles of their family’s cultural background can help them establish a personal connection to dance, as well as an understanding and appreciation of their heritage. “There is a self-love that you get when you learn West African dance,” says Andrea Markus, New York–based teaching artist who holds residencies in elementary and middle schools. “Self-hate is one of the issues that some kids in our school system are working through. One of the ultimate disses for kids now is to call them ‘African.’ When I teach African dance, kids can see a positive, beautiful, fun artform that has come out of the African continent.”

Markus also finds that West African dance can transform a disjointed class into a supportive community. Near the end of class, for example, she conducts a solo circle in which each student can improvise to the beat, while her strict encouragement-only policy keeps peer reactions positive. “By the end, kids just naturally cheer for each other,” she says. “I watch kids who are ready to be negative just transform, and it’s beautiful.”

World-dance forms also appeal to young men who resist dance. Price has had particular success with the South African gumboot dance, which is similar to step dancing, or “stepping,” which uses simple movements like military turns, salutes and body percussion. “Boys gravitate to it, because they feel like they can accomplish it,” he says.

Echoing this idea, Sprague says that high schoolers just starting out in dance often need to relearn what it is to play. She teaches social dances like the German D’Hammerschmiedsgselln (blacksmith’s dance) or Virginia reel. They’re just difficult enough to keep students thinking, but simple and repetitive enough to encourage a little friendly competition. “I have these huge guys just skipping and laughing,” she says. “Some of them have very dangerous after-school activities. But they are still kids at heart. It’s my job to give them a safe place to visit that part of themselves.”

A Bridge to Classical Styles

Technical benefits can also cross over from non-Western styles into ballet or jazz. In addition to strengthening muscles and fostering a new sense of musicality, Price says that the self-expression of world dance can “stretch the dancer’s sense of performance,” especially if he or she is more reserved.

Placing a world-dance unit, such as West African, toward the beginning of the school year before moving into ballet or modern can keep students from tensing up. “The kids learn to be a little more loose while still learning technique, and that translates into other styles,” says Markus. It also gets the students moving and feeling confident right from the start. “The rhythm, the jumping and the sweating makes it fun. And then if I ask them to do something quirky or strange like roll on the floor or stand in this weird position, they trust me more after that fun, high-energy experience.”

Getting Started

Susan Strong incorporates African, Chinese, Indian and hula dancing into her K–third-grade curriculum at The Chapin School in New York City. To educate herself on the styles, Strong makes a point of attending performances and  classes, as well as looking to her student base for inspiration. For instance, a few girls in her third-grade class have experience with classical Indian dance. “The girls are so proud to demonstrate and share the connection between their family and the culture,” she says. “When the students see that it’s important to the girls’ families, it means something; it gives them more respect for the culture and the movement itself.”

Strong recommends contacting a local college dance program where students with world dance expertise might have interest in giving a class or demonstration. She also uses the DVD African Dance 4 Children by Júlio T. Leitão, the artistic director of Batoto Yetu, a children’s African dance group in New York (see sidebar). She shows the performance segments in class and then teaches the steps herself.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to learn alongside students. “I think teachers have a fear: If I’m not an expert, I can’t teach it. But it’s OK,” Markus says. She recommends starting out by attending local cultural festivals and checking with arts-in-education organizations about available grants to bring in artists or attend professional development conferences.

It helps to be open with students so that you are both learning and discovering new elements of the culture together. “I tell my students, ‘You can ask me any question,’” Marcus says, “because those unanswered questions are the scary ones. They say, ‘Is it true that in Africa they do this?’ I want them to ask me, because then I can talk about it and say, ‘Well, no that’s not true.’ Or ‘Yes, that is true.’ It’s about open communication.” DT

Resources for World Dance

BOOK/DVD: Exploring Dance Forms and Styles: A Guide to Concert, World, Social and Historical Dance, by Helene Scheff, Marty Sprague and Susan McGreevy-Nichols. Human Kinetics, 2010.

VHS: Dancing, 8-part video series by Rhoda Grauer. A Thirteen/WNET production, 1993.

BOOK: Dancing: The Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement, by Gerald Jonas. Harry N. Abrams, 1992 (companion to video series).

DVD: African Dance 4 Children, by Júlio T. Leitão. Interactive Cultural Media, 2005.

BOOK/DVD/CD: Multicultural Folk Dance Guide, DVD and CD, by Christy Lane. Human Kinetics, 2007.

DVD: West African Dance, by Abdoulaye Camara and Nikola Clay. National Film Network, 2004.

DVD: Wongai (Let’s Go!), by Youssouf Koumbassa. B-rave Studio, 2000.


Ashley Rivers is a dancer in Boston and a Calderwood Fellow in writing at Emerson College. Photo by Grant Halverson, ©American Dance Festival



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