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

 

 

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.

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

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

When the news broke that Prince George, currently third in line for the British throne, would be continuing ballet classes as part of his school curriculum this year, we were as excited as anyone. (OK, maybe more excited.)

This was not, it seems, a sentiment shared by "Good Morning America" host Lara Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

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
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

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

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox