Karen Kaufmann is changing education in Missoula, one school at a time

Karen Kaufmann's model dance education program is now taught at seven Missoula County public schools.

The desks in Maribeth Rothwell’s second-grade classroom at Rattlesnake Elementary School in Missoula, MT, have been pushed against the walls. In their place, Rothwell and her 20 students crouch down low, their arms held close to their bodies, demonstrating the first step of a plant’s life cycle: a seed. When prompted, the class begins to grow, stretching their bodies upward and their limbs outward. In a matter of minutes, it’s spring.

Rothwell and her students were led through this creative movement exercise last April by a teacher with Montana’s Model Dance Education Project (MoDE). The exercise—like all of those taught by MoDE—was custom-designed to enhance Rothwell’s academic curriculum.

MoDE is the brainchild of Karen Kaufmann, a professor of dance at the University of Montana who, in the fall of 2008, pioneered the in-school dance program that integrates dance education and traditional academic coursework—from language arts and poetry to basic math. Given the current

financial climate and emphasis on measurable academic success (usually through standardized testing), some might think this is the wrong time to forge new public school dance programs. But Kaufmann didn’t let unfavorable conditions discourage her. With innovative pilot programs and the willingness to adapt, she won the necessary local support. Now going into its third year, MoDE is in seven Missoula County public schools (a district of about 8,400 students), offering dance to students of all ages, from elementary through high school.

In 2007, when Kaufmann started thinking about MoDE, the Missoula County Public School (MCPS) district was, like all schools faced with budget cuts and No Child Left Behind, focused on academic achievement. “My original goal was for MoDE to be a school-district-supported activity,” Kaufmann says. But it quickly became clear that wasn’t going to happen. “People think of dance and movement as an extracurricular activity and don’t immediately make the connection to learning.”

When she realized there wasn’t enough support to launch the program as she had imagined it, Kaufmann went school to school, pitching her idea to each principal (some wouldn’t even meet with her). “I don’t consider myself a strong salesperson,” she says. No worry: Her track record did most of the talking.

Before joining the U of M faculty in 1988 (first as an adjunct, then as tenure track), Kaufmann, who has a master’s in dance education from Antioch, was on the Young Audiences roster for 15 years, traveling to schools throughout Montana, presenting solo performances and leading teacher workshops. In 1993, she co-founded Mo-Trans Dance Company, a modern dance group that was in residence at the U of M. A few years later she created an extension called the CoMotion Dance Project, with U of M dance students, which tours primarily in Montana (they’ve visited neighboring states and have made several trips to Alaska), presenting academically oriented short dance performances.

CoMotion’s flagship show featured dancers bouncing, tossing and rolling over giant, vibrantly colored exercise balls in a choreographed demonstration of Newton’s laws of motion. Last winter, CoMotion began touring with a new show adapted from a piece choreographed by Bebe Miller for U of M dance students (see bottom).

While CoMotion alone might have been enough to get some schools on board, Kaufmann had a more recent accomplishment that spoke directly to the district’s focus on testing.

In February 2007 she started Math Movers, an after-school dance program at Arlee School, an elementary school about 30 miles north of Missoula on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Arlee was struggling with low math scores and was open to new approaches. Kaufmann teamed with Dr. Tammy Elser, an education instruction designer and assessment specialist, who found a way to integrate testing into the program.

Over the course of a year and a half, Math Movers hosted a series of six-week sessions, working with about a dozen students twice a week for an hour after school. For the first five minutes of Math Movers, the Arlee students took a short math quiz on the concepts they were studying in class. Then, Kaufmann’s dance teachers led them through 50 minutes of creative movement addressing the same concepts. For example, if the students were learning about geometry during the day, the dance teachers would tape different shapes onto the floor, like a parallelogram, trapezoid and rhombus. Then, Kaufmann explains, the dance teacher would ask the students to gallop to the parallelogram and make shapes with their bodies on the perimeter. “Those were things they needed to know because they were learning about area and perimeter,” she says. At the end of each Math Movers session, the students took another quiz on the same material. Though they’re still in the process of analyzing the data using the students’ state standardized test scores, there appears to be a correlation between students with high Math Movers attendance records and improved math scores.

Additionally, Kaufmann received anecdotal feedback from classroom teachers. “They were reporting that during math class, the kids would say, ‘Oh, we did that in Math Movers,’ ” Kaufmann says.

Math Movers was a success, but Arlee was far away from Kaufmann’s home base. She wanted to make a splash where MCPS administrators would see it. So in February 2008 she hosted a five-day festival that brought hip hop, jazz, modern, African and creative movement to more than 1,200 students—in nearly every grade level—across the MCPS system. She also presented CoMotion’s performance about Newton’s laws of motion and did some curriculum integration. “We blitzed the schools with dance,” Kaufmann says. “We made buttons and wrote press releases. It raised a buzz and got some energy going.”

At the end of the festival, Kaufmann sent evaluations to all the participating teachers. She asked about the student response to the festival, and whether the teachers had seen dance integrated with academics as a learning approach. But most importantly, she wanted to find out if they would want a long-term dance program in their schools. Nearly all said yes.

With the festival, Math Movers, CoMotion and her impressive resumé, Kaufmann convinced seven schools to sign on: MoDE launched in the fall of 2008.

Rothwell, however, wasn’t one of those who needed much convincing. She’d been a fan of Kaufmann’s since they first met nine years ago when Rothwell was earning a master’s in Integrated Arts and Education at the U of M. “Children need to use their bodies so they’re engaged in learning,” Rothwell says. “I was thrilled to have a program where I could teach the curriculum and collaborate with a dance educator who knows the learning goals.” Rattlesnake has been a MoDE school since the program’s inaugural year.

As Rattlesnake’s MoDE lead teacher, Rothwell acts as a liaison between the three participating second-grade classrooms and their MoDE dance educator, Jordan Dehline. Each week, Rothwell tells Jordan what’s coming up in the curriculum. Sometimes, the classroom teachers ask her to create a new exercise for a fresh topic; other times, they want to revisit an old lesson to prepare students for an upcoming test.

When the class was growing from seedlings to flowers, Rothwell reinforced the connection to her curriculum by asking her students questions like “Do you remember what the leaves do for the plant?” and using key vocabulary words, like photosynthesis. Her participation encouraged the students, quietly conveying that dance is a valid, integral part of learning.

This partnership between classroom teachers and MoDE teachers makes the program suitable for different academic subjects and grade levels. But it also serves a functional purpose. While Montana offers teacher certification in art, music and drama, there is no such designation for dance. MoDE helps fill that gap.

There are currently five dance educators with MoDE—all of whom happen to be graduates of the U of M dance program. Having worked with Kaufmann as college students, these young teachers have the unique skill set necessary for success in an academic classroom. “I need dance teachers who will tightly focus a lesson around states of water, even though they might rather do pliés and tendus,” Kaufmann says. Like MoDE itself, the dance teachers have to be able to adjust to each classroom—and classroom teacher. “That partnership is what makes or breaks our program.”

Not only is MoDE suitable for different settings, it can be implemented with varying budgets. Using grants from organizations like the Montana Arts Council and the Dana Foundation, Kaufmann is able to match whatever funding a school can provide (Rattlesnake’s has come from PTA support). Then each school decides how to disperse those funds. Some choose to have their MoDE teacher visit at regular intervals; others start slow and add more dance classes as year-end standardized tests approach, to help reinforce crucial material.

Kaufmann still hopes to see MoDE become a district-wide program—and today, that’s no longer a pipe dream. There is a new superintendent, Dr. Alex Apostle, who, though focused on student achievement, seems open to alternative approaches. He visited a MoDE classroom last year and has been supportive of the program. “When people see it in action,” Kaufmann says, “they get excited.” DT

Prey: The CoMotion Dance Project’s Newest Production

In January 2010, veteran choreographer Bebe Miller visited the University of Montana dance department. She cast a dozen dancers and created a 12-minute abstract contemporary piece called Prey, which explored the relationship between predator and prey.

Professor Karen Kaufmann adapted Miller’s piece into a 45-minute lecture demonstration that the CoMotion Dance Project performed for about 1,200 middle and high school students at five Montana public schools. The tour’s costs were deferred for the schools, thanks to sponsorship from the Montana Cultural Trust and Montana’s Model Dance Education project (MoDE).

Along with excerpts from Miller’s piece, CoMotion presented a five-minute video of Miller talking about the work. Between dance sections, Kaufmann asked the students questions about the piece: “What does the red cloth represent?” “What animal imagery did you see?” There were no right or wrong answers; the goal was simply to get students to actively engage with dance.

“One of the great things the arts do is help students express their own ideas and discover meaning for themselves,” Kaufmann says. “Those are skills that are useful across the curriculum.” —KR

 

Click here to watch a video about Karen Kaufmann's company, CoMotion in Motion

Former dance instructor Katie Rolnick has an MA in cultural reporting and criticism from NYU.  Photo courtesy of MoDE

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Kyle Froman

Darla Hoover was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet's studios running a rehearsal in 2014 with director Marcia Dale Weary. Hoover had just returned the day before from staging a ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. Jet-lagged, she mixed up her words when giving a correction.

Weary took Hoover's hand and gently said, "Honey, you work too hard."

Hoover, and the students, had a good laugh.

"Are you kidding me?" Hoover replied. "You're the one who made this monster. There is no off switch!"

Weary founded CPYB in 1955, and it quickly became an internationally known school that has produced countless principal dancers. Famous for her high standards and tough work ethic, Weary instilled those qualities in Hoover, who served as associate artistic director at CPYB under Weary, as artistic director at Ballet Academy East's pre-professional division in New York City and as a répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust.

Hoover took over as artistic director at CPYB in the spring this year after Weary died suddenly, and while she's committed to continuing Weary's legacy, students have begun to see some of Hoover's vision as well.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix, has been called the Queen of Fundraising by colleagues. A studio owner and high school dance coach with over four decades of experience, Clough is known for her smart and successful fundraising ideas.

Now, Just For Kix has created a new online tool to help everyone tackle their fundraising goals, whether you're raising money for uniforms, extra classes, or to cover the cost of travel for your dance team's next convention.

Clough shared a few of her best fundraising tips, including everything you need to know about the new tool:

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

Professions across the globe hold yearly conferences, and the dance industry is certainly no exception. Annual conferences exist for dance teachers, dance medicine professionals, dance educators and more. Taking the time out to attend them can be well worth your while for a number of different reasons. Let's take a closer look at four of them.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by NYCDA
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Father-daughter dance. Photo by Lisa Lee, courtesy of Dance Academy USA

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

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

Q: How do you approach gender when teaching in 2019? When I was training, male dancers were encouraged to make their movement masculine, while female dancers were encouraged to keep their movement feminine. Today, gender has become much more fluid, and the line between masculine and feminine performance has blurred. How does that impact the way we should be teaching?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo courtesy of Z Artists Group

New York City–based pre-professional training troupe Z Artists Group, along with dancers from eight professional companies in the city, are joining together to combat gun violence with, "DANCERS DEMAND ACTION," a performance aligning art with activism at The Joyce Theater, this Monday, November 11, at 7:30 pm.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Infinite Flow

Last week, 2019 DT Awardee Marisa Hamamoto and her partner Piotr Iwanicki brought their boundary-breaking work to the "Good Morning America" stage in a segment highlighting her inclusive dance company Infinite Flow.

Infinite Flow is a Los Angeles–based wheelchair ballroom dance company (the first of its kind in the U.S.) that incorporates an equal number of disabled and nondisabled dancers, as well as a range of styles like hip hop, contemporary and other partner dances.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

Since she was hired in 2006 to create a dance program at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, Jenefer Davies has operated as, essentially, a one-woman show. She's the only full-time faculty member (with regular adjunct support). Over the last 13 years, she has created a thriving program along with a performance company—at a school with fewer than 2,500 students—by drawing on her admittedly rare strength: aerial dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

Savion Glover is one of the biggest names in the dance world, and perhaps the biggest in the tap world. The trailblazing hoofer's hard-hitting, rhythmically intricate style has fundamentally altered the tap landscape.

Glover is also a master teacher. But during his many years on the scene, he's never appeared regularly at a major dance convention. That is, until this season: Glover is now teaching at JUMP Dance Convention, scheduled to appear at approximately 15 more cities on its 2019–2020 tour.

We talked with JUMP director Mike Minery, himself a gifted hoofer, about working with a living legend—and how Glover is already changing the convention class game.

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

Though she loved choreographing, the high school student showcase wasn't quite enough for Julie Deleger, a recent graduate of The College Preparatory School in Oakland, California. The answer for her was an independent-study project during her last semester there. "Choreography is so personal that sometimes you need to take more or less time with it," she says. "Doing it on my own was really helpful. I let the project guide me rather than having to adhere to a specific set of rules."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

Q: My 5-year-old daughter is pigeon-toed. Do you have any suggestions to help her correct this?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox