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

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