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My First Year As a Public-School Teacher: "I Honestly Don't Know Why I Didn't Go Home Crying on the First Day"

Photo by Rick Decker, courtesy of Lauren Frazier-Gebhart

In Take the Lead, actor Antonio Banderas wins over a group of reluctant inner-city students with a racy tango performance. While the 2006 film was inspired by Pierre Dulaine, ballroom dancer and founder of Dancing Classrooms, teaching in a public school is rarely as easy as it looks in the movies. From financial challenges to lack of administrative support and parental involvement, public-school teaching differs greatly from the studio environments in which most dance educators began their own training. We asked several public-school teachers to share their passion for the hardest job they've ever done. —Kat Richter


Lauren Frazier-Gebhart

Academy of Performing Arts at Burlington County Institute of Technology

Medford, New Jersey

I honestly don't know why I didn't go home crying on my first day. I was hired to build a dance program from the ground up as the first and only arts teacher. Because our superintendent loves dance, she decided that this would be the artform required for all students to graduate. The plumbers and mechanics, however, had different ideas.

When I walked into the classroom, a group of basketball players told me, "We're not taking your f**king dance class." Then they ran away down the hall. The assistant principal rounded them up and said, "Fine, if you won't take this class, here's a telephone. You can call your mom and tell her why you won't be graduating."

My students had never had any real exposure to dance, aside from negative stereotypes about male dancers in particular. I told them, "Here's the deal. You have to get through this. I love dance, and I want you to at least like it." I'd never played so much hip hop and R&B in my life, but by the end of that first year, those basketball players had become my most enthusiastic students.

Teacher Voices
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In 2001, young Chanel, a determined, ambitious, fiery, headstrong teenager, was about to begin her sophomore year at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, also known as the highly acclaimed "Fame" school. I was a great student, a promising young dancer and well-liked by my teachers and my peers. On paper, everything seemed in order. In reality, this picture-perfect image was fractured. There was a crack that I've attempted to hide, cover up and bury for nearly 20 years.

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Health & Body
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Though the #MeToo movement has spurred many dancers to come forward with their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, the dance world has yet to have a full reckoning on the subject. Few institutions have made true cultural changes, and many alleged predators continue to work in the industry.

As Chanel DaSilva's story shows, young dancers are particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the power differential between teacher and student. We spoke with eight experts in dance, education and psychology about steps that dance schools could take to protect their students from sexual abuse.

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Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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