While there have long been academic honor societies to recognize students’ achievements in the classroom, only recently have dance educators found a way to formally acknowledge young dancers. Founded in 2005, The National Honor Society for Dance Arts aims to promote and honor outstanding dance students at the middle and high school levels. To date, there are just under 100 chapters at schools across the country.
“Until NHSDA, we had decades of tremendous professional dancers, but no way of honoring them for their artistic excellence as well as their academic achievements and leadership capabilities,” says Jane Bonbright, executive director of the National Dance Education Organization, a partner organization of NHSDA.
Modeled after the International Thespian Society, the world’s largest honor society for theater arts students, NHSDA is open to students ages 11 to 18. Those who are studying dance in private or public middle or high schools, dance schools/academies, performing arts centers or community centers with active dance programs are all eligible to apply for admission. “Theater students were inducted into the International Thespian Society, so I felt we should have something like that in dance, too,” explains Wrenn Cook, executive director of the South Carolina Dance Education Organization, and the first to found a NHSDA student chapter.
While the criteria is largely determined by the educators, or sponsors, of each chapter, NHSDA requires prospective inductees to earn a certain number of points (15 for middle school, 30 for high school) before joining. “We feel strongly that the sponsor knows her program better than we do and knows what level of achievement the students should be reaching for,” says Cook. Some of the ways students can earn points include participating in performances, taking extra technique classes or working behind the scenes of a production.
Once they have accumulated enough credits, members receive a certificate and an honors cord and pin to wear during graduation. High school juniors and seniors may also be eligible to apply for the NDEO Artistic Merit, Leadership and Academic Achievement Award—the highest national honor in dance education. After screening at the state level, top applicants compete nationally through portfolio analysis, which includes a dance video, teacher recommendations and proof of a 3.0 grade point average or higher. One to four winners, who receive trips to conferences, mentorships and other benefits, are chosen annually.
In addition to the tangible benefits of membership, students also gain a sense of validation. “The kids love it,” says Laura Earnhardt, chapter sponsor of NHSDA at Holly Springs High School in North Carolina. “They appreciate knowing that they are part of an organization that wants to recognize them at such a young age. It acknowledges their dedication both to dance and to themselves.”
Last year, 200 seniors graduated with this distinction, and the numbers are growing. “We’ve made the program very broad and inclusive because we want students dedicated to dance to be able to receive recognition no matter where they’re receiving their education,” adds Cook, noting that nearly any dance teacher of a program offering public or private training is eligible to participate, as long as they apply to be an institutional member of NDEO.
To celebrate induction, many chapters hold formal recognition ceremonies that provide performing opportunities for students. Before handing out certificates this year, Earnhardt gave each student a candle: “I told them the candle is their young flame as artists and their job is to protect and nourish it—to light the path to success.”
The students aren’t the only ones winning with NHSDA; the schools that implement chapters also see big results. It helps to bring credibility and national recognition to dance programs by acknowledging legitimate training, notes Earnhardt. “And this ensures that we’re delivering quality instruction to prepare students for the college level,” she adds.
In establishing the point system, sponsors can organize their programs to better suit the needs of students. And because it’s based on participation, pursuit of membership provides motivation for students to be involved in dance beyond the basic class requirements. “It’s a great way to structure your department or program,” says Nancy Petro, a state affiliate in Florida, where there are currently 26 chapters. “Like other honor societies, there are officers. The students can take some of the responsibility.”
In addition, sponsors can use the attachment to NDEO to promote school events, leading to greater visibility. “It’s the networking between the K–12 schools, the private dance institutions and the artists in the community that allows those who are conducting programs to recognize the power of their work,” explains Bonbright.
Earnhardt believes that she “has a duty as an artist to get my art out there. We represent dance, not just the school.” The members of her locally celebrated program perform for the community, which, she says, doesn’t always understand or appreciate the form. “Dance is common on television and is coming into homes, but [NHSDA] recognizes things beyond the entertainment value and sees why students are pursuing it.”
In encouraging the well-rounded dancer, NHSDA makes a point to recognize factors beyond innate talent. “It works to develop the whole student,” says Bonbright. “It integrates the mind, body and spirit with technique, academics and leadership. It makes them all equally important, which I think is a wonderfully wholesome way to go in our dance field.” DT
Taylor Gordon, a freelance dancer and writer in New York City, is currently pursuing a master’s in publishing at Pace University.