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My First Year as a Public-School Teacher: "I let them each pick their own partners."

Photo by Hector Leiva, Jr., courtesy of Gabrielle F. Aufiero

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


Gabrielle F. Aufiero

KIPP Austin Beacon Prep and KIPP Austin Vista Middle School

Austin, Texas

Middle-schoolers are definitely moved by music that they want to listen to. You need to give them an entry point, so for ballet, I am always looking for new instrumental pop or hip-hop songs. For our first unit, I used of lot of PE-type movement, almost like Zumba, to give them the ability to move in class while learning how to stand in the space, what it means to go "across the floor" and how to travel on a diagonal. In a studio, newcomers can pick up cues from their classmates, but in a public school classroom, everyone is a newcomer.

A lot of my students have experience with Latin dance forms such as bachata or salsa. They really enjoy dancing with a partner, so we did swing dancing for their spring showcase. I let them each pick their own partners, and the awareness that their dancing is going to affect someone else helps to keep them accountable. For me, it's all about building individual relationships with my students. When they come in to class and hand me a note that lists seven songs they want to dance to, or ask me to pull up a dance video on my computer, I tell them, "Thank you so much! I'm so glad you sent me this." The stronger the relationship, the more likely they'll respect you as an educator.

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