Dance Teacher Tips

K–12: An Innovative Disney Program in Schools Helps Children Discover a Passion—and Talent—for Musical Theater.

Segerstrom Center brings Disney to Costa Mesa, CA, schools. Fromtop: Kendra Moore of The Lion King visits Stanley Elementary; students of Eisenhower Elementary perform Disney’s Aladdin.

A whole new world opens up for a young elementary school kid performing the title role of Aladdin. It’s the first time he’s sung in front of his family, much less an audience. It’s the first time his school has put on a musical. The memory still brings tears to the eyes of musician and teaching artist Cynthia McGarity, who works with Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.

Therein lies the power of a remarkable program created by Disney Theatrical Group, which partners nationwide with arts organizations in nine cities to bring the joy of being onstage to youngsters in Title I schools who might never have thought of performing in a musical in their lives.

“We had cast a boy as Aladdin who had this wonderfully rich voice—just like chocolate—but he was very, very shy. At first he wouldn’t even hold his head up to say a line audibly,” McGarity says.

“Watching him, with his shoulders back and his head held high belting that tune out was...” she pauses as her voice cracks. “His parents approached me after the show, and his father was weeping. He said to me, ‘I never knew that he could do that. I will make sure he has the opportunity to keep singing.’”

“I think we probably were not nearly aware of how much we would fall in love with this program,” says Talena Mara, Segerstrom Center’s VP of education. “We weren’t sure what we were getting into, and it was a big nut to crack for a small staff, but we found, after going through the first year, that this program has made an intense and remarkable change, not just in the kids and the faculty, but in the internal culture of each of the schools.”

Launched in 2009, Disney Musicals in Schools was developed by the Disney Theatrical Group—which produces and licenses Disney musicals—and Music Theatre International, which, among other services, works with schools and community groups on pocket (JR. and KIDS) versions of Broadway shows appropriate for younger audiences.

“It was born to fill a need we identified,” explains Lisa Mitchell, senior manager of education and outreach at Disney Theatrical Group. Over the years, as Disney licensed the abridged versions of its musicals for school-aged children to perform, she says, it became apparent that most requests came from suburban schools, and very few from urban and lower-income areas.

“Here we are in New York City, we have kids performing in Aladdin from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island, and yet they weren’t doing these shows in their own schools,” she says. “But rather than just going in and staging a show for them, we wanted to plant the seed of an ongoing, sustainable program. Disney Musicals in Schools is deliberately designed to provide professional development and training to teachers so they can learn how to get a show up on its feet.”

In just seven years, Disney has fostered the program nationwide via local arts organizations in New York, Nashville, Las Vegas, Seattle, Costa Mesa, Newark, Cleveland, Lansing and the San Francisco Bay Area, and brought it to 138 schools with nearly 13,000 kids at the third- through fifth-grade levels participating.

Like Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, each local institution receives a two-year $100,000 grant to identify four or five underserved, urban elementary schools and match them with four or five pairs of musical theater professionals who will work with each school’s faculty over 17 weeks, training them in the art of putting on a show. The teaching-artist visits, CDs of the musical tracks, scripts, DVDs of examples and the license to perform a special half-hour elementary school KIDS version of popular shows, such as Aladdin, The Aristocats or The Lion King, are all part of the grant, and offered free to the schools.

Disney Musicals in Schools also provides a detailed teacher’s handbook that includes chapters on how to run an audition, how to rehearse the kids, ideas for costumes and staging notes. Organizations like Segerstrom select the schools from among applicants and tap into their connections to find the professional mentors, many of whom have Broadway national credits, in addition to a passion for education. The teachers and students provide the enthusiasm and energy.

“Learning the routines, getting kids engaged, how to cast, how the staging should look—our teaching artists taught us so much,” says Victoria McKenney, a first-grade teacher at Everett A. Rea Elementary in Orange County. “We had a 40-kid cast, and I was overwhelmed at first. It was my first year teaching and I thought, ‘How on earth am I going to do this?’ But we met twice a week and for another half-hour after each rehearsal with the teaching artists, and they were really inspirational. The kids loved it—nobody dropped out—and it’s really brought these kids extra opportunities to shine outside the classroom.”

This year, McKenney and her fellow faculty at Rea will take what they’ve learned and mount another Disney KIDS musical, The Lion King, but on their own. “I’m feeling more confident than ever, even though I had no experience before this,” she says. “We believe we can do it.”

In the second year, Disney Musicals in Schools continues to support schools with a free performance license with ShowKit materials and invites faculty back for a Musical Theater 201 workshop designed to build on skills they gained the previous year, explains Mitchell. “The end goal is that they keep doing this, and 90 percent of schools that begin the program continue a long tradition of doing a show,” she says.

“It is incredibly well-designed,” says Mara. “It’s really helped unify the staff and admin, and the kids and the teachers of these schools, and allowed them to feel proud and energized and engaged. The parents became very connected with the program as well, so it changed the community where the school was located. We did not anticipate that that would happen to the degree it did, so we were blown away by its impact.” DT

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photos by (from top) Doug Gifford, Nick Koon; both courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Don’t miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

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
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

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

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox