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My First Year As a Public-School Teacher: "Nothing Prepares You for Middle School Kids"

Photo by Michael Avilez, courtesy of Chrissie Leong

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


Chrissie Leong

Formerly of Beverly Hills High School

Beverly Hills, California

I started teaching at a studio in college, did student teaching in grad school and subbed dance classes throughout New York for the Department of Education, but nothing prepares you for middle school kids. I always say, "No one peaks in middle school," and I had 30–40 students at a time, five times a day.

I had to learn very quickly: classroom management, grading, choreographing 20 routines each year and how to survive the constant testing that you get every day from students. In a studio, the dancers stand at the barre and wait for instructions, but in a public school you spend most of your time trying to rein them in.

It takes a good three years to build a rapport with the kids, and I would not have survived those three years if not for my mentor. She brought me out to L.A. to help grow the program and held my hand along the way. We talked at night, and every morning on the way to work. It takes a lot of heart to teach inner-city kids, and she definitely had it.

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

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