Michael Kerr Inspires a Love of Dance in Brooklyn Middle-schoolers

"I allow for a lot of exploration, a lot of risk taking," says Michael Kerr. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of PS DANCE!

"You know when people ask, 'Why does dance belong in K–12?'" asks middle-school dance teacher Michael Kerr. His response: "Well, why not? Not everyone who takes dance classes has the ambition of becoming a dancer, just like not everyone who studies science wants to become a scientist. That's a big revelation for my students. It changes the way they approach their work. I hope that when they walk out of my program, they will have a deeper appreciation for dance, be better-cultivated human beings and be more comfortable moving together."

Kerr has been teaching dance in New York City public schools for more than 20 years. Because of the success of the public middle-school dance program he created for Brooklyn's New Voices School of Academics & Creative Arts, he was one of five dance instructors to be featured in the 2015 documentary PS DANCE!, which examines the impact dance education programs have on NYC public school students and their daily learning.


With a standards-based educational approach, Kerr piques his students' curiosity and passion for dance. "Michael fosters an atmosphere of acceptance in his classroom, so students feel safe in improvising and expressing themselves in front of their peers," says PS DANCE! narrator Paula Zahn. "There are no mistakes in Michael's classroom, just opportunities to learn."

A Blueprint for Dance

Kerr is known among his peers for creating an educational environment that aligns with the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance, Grades PreK–12, the NYC dance curriculum guidebook for public schools, which Kerr helped write in 2005.

The Blueprint release made a significant difference for public-school dance educators, who had often had their work minimized by peers and school administrators, Kerr says. "Dance teachers are finally being taken more seriously in New York City," he says. "No, we are not physical-education teachers. We are no different than math or science teachers. You have to have the tenacity and a passion to do this work. I take it very seriously."

Classroom Implementation

Kerr's classes are a seamless blend of content and discovery, with students learning dance skills and technique contextualized by dance history and theory, says Deborah Damast of NYU Steinhardt, a contributor to the second edition of the Blueprint, and a colleague of Kerr's when he was on faculty at 92nd Street Y Dance Education Laboratory. "His students create original work that is relevant and important to who they are," she says, "and they have opportunities to work with masterworks and guest artists from major dance companies."

Since Kerr started his New Voices program in 2000, every sixth-grade student—there are nearly 200 of them each year—is required to take his introduction-to-dance class. It's a sequential, Laban Movement Analysis–based program, which introduces core elements of dance as a foundation to developing a class choreography and familiarizes students with the lives and work of 20th-century dance artists, like Isadora Duncan, George Balanchine and Katherine Dunham. "Knowing about the life and work of a dance artist enables my students to think analytically about the dances we see and to become perceptive spectators," says Kerr. At the end of the year, the students—some having never had a dance class before meeting Kerr—perform in a showcase for the entire school community and their families. "It doesn't get any better than when they see that everything they learned really did have some significance," Kerr says. "They see how each class created choreography based on their learning, in their own unique way."

When students reach seventh grade, they pick an arts "major," like theater, music or graphic arts. Dance majors work with Kerr on techniques, such as ballet, modern, hip hop and jazz, and they further experiment with the choreographic process. "I allow for a lot of exploration, a lot of risk taking. I'm not the 2+2=4 teacher," says Kerr, adding that he encourages his students to resolve their own issues without adult intervention whenever possible. "A lot of students want validation that they're doing something right and ask me for help. I tell them, 'Why do you need my help? Why do you think I know the answer?'"

Lifelong Impact

Brooklyn resident Shakirah Windbish, 22, was one of Kerr's students. She now works at New Voices and assists Kerr in his classes three times a week. "He's always been an ambitious, hard-working, structured teacher, but I feel like he's perfected his craft even more," she says.

In addition to learning firsthand tips on how to be a better teacher, Windbish is also an apprentice in Kerr's seven-member not-for-profit company, DanceKerr & Dancers, which he founded in 2015. The company performs Kerr's work throughout the NYC and New Jersey area.

Windbish hopes to someday run an occupational therapy practice that incorporates dance. "It feels good that I get to help and be supportive to the students, and that I get to help Mr. Kerr and continue to learn from him," Windbish says. "I can't give dance up ever. It's within me."

Dance Teachers Trending
Barbara Bashaw in Thompson Hall of Columbia Teachers College. Photo by Kyle Froman

Barbara Bashaw has always been a pioneer. Since kicking off her career in education by building a dance program from the ground up at an elementary school in Brooklyn, she's gone on to become an inspiring force in teacher training. Now, as director of the new doctoral program in dance education at Columbia University's renowned Teachers College and as executive director of the even newer Arnhold Institute for Dance Education Research, Policy & Leadership, she's in a position to effect change nationwide.

"The study of dance education is a young field," Bashaw says. "Music and visual arts are far ahead of us, in terms of the research that has been done, as well as the foothold they have in education. Anywhere education is being discussed, we want to put dance on the table—and that means developing researchers and championing research that will push public policy." In a climate where arts education feels both more endangered and more necessary than ever, Bashaw is ready to blaze a trail.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Karen Hildebrand (center) with 2019 DT Awardee Marisa Hamamoto and members of Infinite Flow. Photo by Joe Toreno

Every year in our summer issue, we honor four dance educators for their outstanding contributions to the field. Recipients have included studio owners, professors, program directors, K–12 teachers and more, whose specialties run the gamut of dance genres.

We need your help to identify this year's best in the profession. Do you have a colleague or mentor who deserves to be recognized as a leader and role model?

Send your nomination by March 1, 2020. You can e-mail us at danceteachereditors@dancemedia.com with the following details:

Keep reading...
Sponsored by Akada Software
Photo by Jenny Studios, courtesy of Utah Dance Artists

Running a dance school used to involve a seemingly endless stream of paperwork. But thanks to the advent of software tailored specifically for dance studios' needs, those hours formerly spent pushing papers can now be put to better use.

"Nobody opens a dance studio because they want to do administrative work," says Brett Stuckey, who leads Akada Software's support team. "It's our job to get you out of the office and back into your classroom."

We talked to Stuckey about how a studio software program can streamline operations, so you can put your energy toward your students.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I'm having such a love-hate relationship with mirrors right now. They can be distracting, as well as cause emotional distress for my students. At the same time, they're a really useful tool. I know some teachers remove theirs altogether. Is this something you recommend?

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips

Susan Pilarre has been closely tied to the School of American Ballet for nearly her entire life.

From her first class there at age 11 through her 16-year career with its affiliated company, New York City Ballet, Pilarre learned directly from the great choreographer George Balanchine, absorbing the details of his unique style. Sensing her innate understanding of his principles, Balanchine encouraged her to teach; she joined SAB's permanent faculty in 1986. Since then, she has become recognized as an authority on Balanchine's teachings, instilling SAB and NYCB's distinctive speed, clarity and energy into generations of dancers.

Here, Pilarre shares how the specifics that Balanchine insisted upon in class contribute to the strength, beauty and musicality that define his style—and dispels common misconceptions.

Keep reading...

To celebrate Valentine's Day in the most dance-centric way possible, we sat down with five powerhouse dance-teaching couples to talk about their love stories. What do they admire about each other? What are their couple goals and their teaching philosophies, and how do they make their relationships work, especially when they work together? Get ready to swoon!

Keep reading...
For Parents
Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of BAE

Watching through the studio windows—or even from the sidelines in a Mommy and Me class—can surely make parents wonder what exactly our little tykes are getting out of weekly ballet lessons. After all, they're repeating the same things class after class. Are they bored? Are they progressing? Why are they doing that again?

Keep reading...
Site Network
Photo by Nina Lokmadzhieva, courtesy of Varna IBC

The oldest ballet competition in the world doesn't have the funds for the show to go on: The 29th edition of the Varna International Ballet Competition, scheduled for July 12–30, 2020, has been postponed indefinitely.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I have a 15-year-old student who has problems keeping her heel fully on the ground during a demi-plié. How can I help her?

Keep reading...
Site Network
The eight 2020 Prix de Lausanne prize winners. Photo by Rodrigo Buas, courtesy of PdL

The 2020 Prix de Lausanne has officially come to a close after a thrilling week of classes, coaching sessions, competition performances and networking forums. The annual competition, which was live streamed around the world and watched over 1.1 million times, gave 77 dancers an opportunity to perform and take class in front of an international panel of judges. In addition to a classical variation, candidates had to master a contemporary solo by Mauro Bigonzetti, Jean-Christophe Maillot, Cathy Marston, Wayne McGregor, Heinz Spoerli or Richard Wherlock.

Keep reading...
Dance News
Photo by Wendy Turner, courtesy of Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop

This summer, as for the past 42 years, students will flock to Colorado to immerse themselves in jazz dance training and performance. High school and college students, professional artists and teaching artists alike will find opportunities for growth and connection.

The Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop honors tradition while also embracing innovation and change within the jazz dance genre and dance field in general. Before executive/artistic director Lara Branen began the Workshop, she and her co-founder Michael Geiger had studied at separate times with San Francisco jazz teachers Ann Garvin, Linda Heine and Ed Mock. Later Lynn Simonson became their primary inspiration. Each year Branen invites new guest artists to join long-term faculty who devotedly return year after year, including: Wade Madsen (modern dance), Nancy Cranbourne (jazz), Christy McNeil Chand (jazz) and Meghan Lawitz (contemporary). This summer will include lyrical, musical theater rep and a heels class, in addition to the program's regular offerings.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Getty Images

Nope, there's still no Oscar for Best Choreography—but we now get to reveal the winner of our own Dance Spirit award for Best Movie Choreography of 2019! Though we're big fans of all seven of the nominated choreographers, and think each one deserves to be acknowledged for their contributions to some of our favorite films this year, there can only be one winner. And based on your votes, that is...

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox