Abigail Agresta-Stratton, BFA, MA, RDE, is the founder and director of West Islip High School Dance Company. A full-time dance educator at WIHS, she also designed and wrote its dance curriculum.
Trying to form a school dance company can be a lengthy and challenging process—from seeking administrative support and funding to recruiting students and scheduling rehearsals. For most educators, however, the rewards far outweigh the difficulties: “It has provided a number of students with an expressive outlet and a tangible reason to attend school,” explains Bernie Jones, director of art, dance and music for West Islip Union Free School District in West Islip, New York.
The first step in undertaking this enormous endeavor is to define your own reasons for wanting to start a company. For example, the mission of the EKB Dance Company at P.S. 165 Edith K. Bergtraum School in Flushing, NY, directed and conceived by Kathleen Isaac, was clear from the very beginning: to provide students “with multiple entry points into the world of dance—participating as creators, performers, choreographers, researchers, critics and mentors,” and to nurture “a lifelong love of the artistry and creative expression of dance.”
On the other hand, Cheryl Adams of Calvert High School in Prince Frederick, Maryland, didn’t originally set out to form a dance company. Instead, she developed the idea while looking for ways to introduce elementary school students to the dance possibilities that exist in high school.
Are you looking to add credibility to your current dance program? Boost student involvement and community interest? Read on and learn how to create a dance company that’s right for you.
Once you’ve established the company’s mission, you can decide who will be involved. For instance, do you want to limit acceptance to the upper grades? Ana Nery Fragoso, director of Hip Hips Dance Company at P.S. 315 in Brooklyn, NY, admits only fourth and fifth graders in order to “establish some kind of continuation in the protocols, work habits and creative process of the group.”
Another consideration is whether students will be invited to participate or required to audition.
If you choose to hold auditions, be sure to create a set of guidelines that clearly outlines the requirements of dance company members. This will help facilitate the decision-making process as well as safeguard you from parents or administrators who question why a particular student didn’t make the cut.
There are myriad ways to pique students’ interest in your troupe: A middle school dance company can benefit from performing for a sixth-grade orientation, while a high school dance company may enjoy dancing at an orientation for incoming freshmen or traveling to different middle schools. Such showcases will give incoming students a taste of dance at your school while offering company members opportunities to display their skills in front of diverse audiences.
Making sure the administrators are in line with your goals is crucial to the success of your company. With their help, you will be able to continue to offer multiple dance techniques and cultural dances, explore new ways to access students and increase the company’s visibility at school functions.
Since administrators are most familiar with the procedures for using the building after hours, they can also be of assistance when setting up rehearsals. For Michael Kerr of New Voices Middle School in Brooklyn, NY, “administrative support enabled my dance company to come alive.”
Getting parents involved is essential, as well. Schedule meetings with them to talk about the process the dancers engage in to create their works. You may even consider holding a student/parent workshop, in which students can take their parents through a composition or improvisation project, or a piece of choreography. By helping parents understand what it takes to participate in a school dance company, you’ll be more likely to gain their valuable support.
The more interest you generate, the easier it will be to run successful fundraising activities. Bake sales, candy sales, valentines purchased and sent to fellow classmates, and jewelry or skincare parties that families are invited to attend are just a few profitable ideas. The trick is to know your community—as well as your financial needs—and plan activities accordingly.
Be careful to take into consideration academic responsibilities, various state and school exams, field trips, chorus concerts, school plays and other functions when planning rehearsals.
Befriend others in your school so you’re not alone when faced with important questions. Get to know a teacher from another department, show your appreciation to the office and custodial staffs and become friends with the union delegates. These individuals can make your life much easier by alerting you to school activities that may conflict with your schedule.
After your company is up and running, use this extra time with students to further their knowledge of dance. Denise Rapp of Arcadia High School in Phoenix, Arizona, stresses the importance of bringing in guest artists. She makes it clear to students that there is “a vast variety within modern dance” and encourages them to embrace this diversity.
Classes in choreography, composition and improvisation can also help to bring depth to your students’ performances and create a well-rounded experience.
Despite the hard work, a school dance company can be exciting and rewarding for both you and your students. After all, a meaningful process is bound to create an amazing product!