Making a Case for Dance in Public Schools

Catherine Gallant inspires creativity and confidence at PS 89.

Catherine Gallant is one of five educators featured in the documentary PS DANCE!

Children skipping, dancing with partners and swaying from side to side illuminate the screen of the documentary film PS DANCE! as their teacher, Catherine Gallant, weaves through the classroom. They spread out and she leads the class through pliés, inviting the children to follow along, her arms spread wide. When she prompts them with the image, “crawling creatures at the bottom of the ocean,” the children respond by shifting to a low level to slither, slide and roll, giving their best interpretations of sea creatures.

In May, New York City dance education advocate Jody Gottfried Arnhold and filmmaker Nel Shelby released PS DANCE!, a 53-minute documentary (available on DVD, distributed by First Run Features) that welcomes viewers into the classrooms of five NYC public school dance teachers. The film makes a powerful case in favor of dance education for children from pre-K through high school. In one touching moment, a second-grader describes her dance class, saying, “I love that we get to be free.”

Gallant opens the film with her pre-K to second-graders at PS 89 in Battery Park City. An active choreographer and performer, she has been teaching at the school for 17 years. She was also part of the team that created the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance, the curriculum document introduced in 2004 that remains an essential tool for dance teachers throughout New York City.

Filmmaker Nel Shelby spent time with Gallant and her students at PS 89 in NYC.

Path to Pedagogy

In addition to teaching, Gallant runs two dance companies: Catherine Gallant/DANCE, an informal group of dancers for which she choreographs contemporary and site-specific pieces, and Dances by Isadora, where she restages Isadora Duncan repertory for events like the Isadora Duncan International Symposium, American Dance Guild Festival and annual Duncan workshops held at Mark Morris Dance Center.

Gallant began teaching to supplement her artistic pursuits. She had been volunteering in her son’s fifth-grade class, and when his classroom teacher became principal of the newly formed PS 89 in 1998, she invited Gallant to teach dance there part-time. “That was where the first opportunity opened up,” Gallant says. “It really could have been anything. It wasn’t like I had a vision to be in K–5.” The school grew over the next four years, and Gallant worked her way to a full-time position.

She credits PS DANCE! producer Arnhold, founder of the Dance Education Laboratory (DEL) of the 92nd Street Y, with helping her find her initial footing in teaching. “Jody was the person I’d call crying when I was first at PS 89,” she says. “I’d say, ‘What do I do?’ and she would give me suggestions.” Gallant enrolled in the DEL courses and workshops, and it was through her mentors there—including Kyle Haver (Bank Street College of Education), Barbara Bashaw (Rutgers University) and Ann Biddle (founding member of DEL)—that she initially explored methods for using dance to make connections to math, language and social studies. Later she began to conduct DEL classes herself.

Teaching K–5 is only one of Gallant’s professional roles.

Classroom Strategies

Gallant sees all 470 pre-K to fifth-grade students in her school every week, teaching four to six classes of 25 to 28 students a day for 50 minutes each. To help juggle so many classes, she has created certain rituals. For instance, she says, “Students come into the room in a specified order. They sit down. The shoes come off and go on the left side of their bodies. It’s very specific.” Each class knows what to expect and learning time is maximized.

Hand-drawn charts with words like “melt” and “rise” and their corresponding symbols from Laban Movement Analysis line her classroom walls. Students learn to observe, give commentary and describe movement in terms of space, time and dynamics. She builds on the vocabulary at each grade level, to each year enrich students’ ability to observe, describe and analyze.

Each semester she introduces an in-depth unit that corresponds to what the children are studying in their academic classes. When deciding on topics, she chooses units that provide strong connections to movement through action vocabulary, forces of nature, animals or a compelling narrative. For example, “If the third grade is studying the bridges of NYC, we’re also studying bridge-building with our bodies,” she says. “We cover symmetry, asymmetry, support, contact and trust.”

Visual, kinesthetic and auditory cues are built into every class to appeal to a variety of learning styles. She uses modeling, mirroring and guided imagery to engage students with improvisation. While the children work in partners and groups, Gallant meanders through the room serving as a choreographic consultant and proximity patrol. As she says in the film, one of the many learning benefits of dance is the value of moving in a shared space: “If you’re respecting your own space and that of others, it starts to move into the larger aspects of what it means to respect difference, to respect the rate at which people learn.”

She also weaves into her lessons the more dance-specific concepts of choreography and notation. “I want students to believe that they are generators of their own vocabulary,” she says. “If you speak to any adult walking down the street, you’ll find that [in school] maybe they made their own song. They certainly did a drawing. But almost none of them have actually created a dance. I’m trying to change that.”

Although her classes focus on improvisation and dancemaking, she also teaches cultural dance forms, like Caribbean and West African, and Isadora Duncan repertory. These dances are well-received, but Gallant says the children most enjoy making their own dances. “I try to do a balance, because when kids are out in the world, they are going to see dance that is strictly choreographed,” she says. “I want them to know the difference by experiencing both.”

They also crave high-energy movement. “They don’t move enough during their regular day in school,” she says. “Even when they get home, a lot of them gravitate toward screens.” Because of this, she’s noticed over the past 10 years that basic body awareness and coordination challenges like contralateral movement and balancing are difficult for kids. Anne Green Gilbert’s BrainDance is Gallant’s go-to tool for improving coordination and sense of space. From as early as pre-K, she uses Gilbert’s concept of a “space bubble” to emphasize personal body awareness.

Gallant is a recognized expert in Isadora Duncan repertory.

Inspiring Children

Gallant, herself a mother of three, may not have set out to become an expert in her field, but her students are living proof of what a solid dance education can inspire. Their joy, confidence and creative capacity are apparent in PS DANCE!, where they are seen wiggling, jumping and gesturing with smiles on their faces. “I think all children have a large appetite for movement,” she says. The thoughtful lessons that she brings to her students enable them to satisfy that appetite in a creative and open environment.

Now that her own children are grown, Gallant is refocusing on her choreographic and performance work, allowing her teaching to inform her craft and her craft to inform her teaching. Balancing it all is challenging, she says, “but certainly by now it’s too late to stop.” DT

Rachel Caldwell is assistant editor, research, for DanceMedia.

Photos from top: (2) courtesy of PS DANCE!; by Francesca Todesco, by P Aresu, both courtesy of Gallant

Show Comments ()
Dance Teacher Tips
At CPYB, students learn from an early age the importance of strong corps work. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of CPYB

Dancers at the University of Arizona recently performed Jerome Robbins' Antique Epigraphs, an ensemble piece for eight women that requires intricate linear formations and walking in unison. "It was super-challenging for us," says dance professor Melissa Lowe. "Students needed a heightened sense of awareness, or it wasn't going to happen." Lowe asked dancers to use their intuition and aural sensibilities to help determine where they needed to be, when they should be there and how to get to those places—together.

Teaching dancers to work in unison, whether as a large corps de ballet or small ensemble group, is an integral part of their training. It requires teamwork, attention to detail and thoughtful preparation for a successful group effort. Teachers need to provide the right steps and counts to ensure cohesiveness, of course. But how you set the material will also encourage dancers to be in line and in sync—while still allowing them to be individuals.

Make sure they show up

Photo by Ed Flores, courtesy of University of Arizona

University of Arizona students at the end of Balanchine's Serenade

Missing dancers can be disastrous for a group piece. "If it's a studio production, there has to be an agreement up front for students who want to be involved," says Lorita Travaglia, ballet mistress at Colorado Ballet. "When one person is missing and doesn't know what they're doing, it really does affect the whole group." Understanding the importance of commitment is a crucial part of dancers' (and their families') training. "They have the responsibility to everyone, not just themselves," she says.










Showstopper is the nation's leading dance competition. It provides the perfect platform for dancers, teachers, and choreographers to showcase their talents and hard work. Showstopper's environment is inviting, motivating, and above all, inspiring. If you haven't experienced it, now is the time!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

After returning from my first summer intensive away, I started my first diet at 13. My teacher patted my thigh and told me, "that wasn't there before."

Without any nutrition education and because I was too embarrassed to tell my mother what had happened, I started restricting food and only eating things that contained three grams of fat or less. Clearly, as a young teen, I didn't have the knowledge to safely wade through dieting tips and formulate a plan for myself.

Now as a health coach for dancers, I approach the issue of weight with a new found sensitivity–and urge dance educators to do the same.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photos by Jayme Thornton for Pointe. Modeled by Anna Greenberg of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.

Planks are one of the most popular exercises for core strength, but they're not just about flat abs. Julie O'Connell, physical therapist and performing arts program manager at Chicago's Athletico Physical Therapy, says that dancers can use them to maximize their conditioning: Look at the corrections you're getting in class or the choreography you're learning and mirror those concepts in your strength work.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
On June 9, we showcased the first group of the IMPACT program in Florida at MAD Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of MTEAF

This weekend, The Maria Torres Emerging Artists Foundation is making the dreams of 12 young girls come true.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Thinkstock

Though a new studio year brings with it its own stressors—class scheduling, orientation, newly sore muscles—you'd be remiss if you didn't also use this opportunity to carefully consider what's been working (and what hasn't) for your studio. Is it time to repaint your lobby? Get rid of that more-trouble-than-it's-worth vending machine? Finally add a social-media clause to your student handbook? August is your chance to roll up your sleeves and give every aspect of your business the mental elbow grease it needs.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via @tilerpeck on Instagram

One of my favorite questions to be asked is, "What does your perfect day look like?" I love it so much because I have my response down to a science! As a dance lover, it's simple. My perfect day would be filled with ALL dance ALL the time. It would be HEAVEN!

Because I know our readers are dance addicts, too, I thought you might relate to my oh-so-dance-obsessed 24 hours as well. Check out what made the list, and let me know if there are any "MUST-DO'S" that we should have included over on our Facebook page. On your next free day (lol, cute right?) give it a try, and let us know if it's as fabulous as we think it is!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Booker T. Alum Celeste Robbins and Linda James. Photo by Brian Guiliaux

Linda James, a dance teacher who retired in June from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, recently wrote for Arts+Culture about her 36 years of teaching.

"I am proud to say that I am a former member of the dance faculty at Booker T. (an affectionate name given to the school by recent alums). In June 2018, I retired from BTWHSPVA—a privileged position that fed my soul. When school resumes in the fall, I know that I will miss the hugs, boisterous clamor and rhythmic outbursts of spontaneous movement as students dart down the halls on the way to class and rehearsals."

She goes on to praise the success of the school's graduates, including the five male dancers in 2016 who were accepted to The Juilliard School, which admits only 10 males each year. She also thanked the local dance schools that have enriched the community:

"Thanks to the outstanding training provided by area dance studios and schools, the skill level of incoming BTWHSPVA dancers has grown steadily. The Booker T. dance faculty eagerly amplify the students' technique and foster the development of their artistry."

For the full story published at Arts+Culture, visit here.

Dance Teachers Trending

After 14 years teaching on the convention circuit, Kim McSwain's known for her positivity. And in 2017, she started a dance education and consulting agency to offer personalized training for dance studios. Through Changing Lives, she and a network of 10 experts advise on faculty training, studio-business management and consultation, parent education classes, curriculum development, choreography and private lessons for teachers and more.

McSwain is particularly known for her work with the "littles," the 5-and-under dancers, having begun as an assistant teacher in the preschool room of her local studio at age 19. Combining her own dance background (her resumé includes dancing for Britney Spears and *NSYNC) and her genuine love of children, McSwain went from assisting classes to running the studio's performance and competition teams.

"It was better than anything I'd ever felt dancing professionally," she says. "I never looked back. I always tell my faculty that their class can either light up a kid's world or it can add to the darkness most kids are already dealing with. There's nothing in-between—so let's light up their lives."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
It doesn't have to be diagnosable by the DSM-5 to be dangerous to your health. Photo by Dominik Martin/Unsplash

When the cat food started smelling good, I knew I had a problem.

I'd always considered eating disorders to be extreme. Someone who never eats. Someone who weighs less than 100 pounds. Someone who gets hospitalized.

My behavior didn't fit the mental health definition of an eating disorder. I ignored it because I didn't know how to articulate it. It took me several years after the cat food smelled good to have the language to describe what was going on.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Thinkstock

We asked and you answered! Here are the top 11 things dance teachers wish their students understood. Let us know if you agree with these over on our Facebook page!

Thanks for being fabulous and keeping your students' best interests at heart. We vow to love you all forever and ever! xoxo

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored