American schools today are more diverse than ever before. Students must navigate increasingly complex social divides, ranging from differences of ethnic background to the age-old lines between bullies and the bullied, upper and underclassmen, “rich” and “poor,” “smart” kids and “athletic” kids. As a result, educators are noticing a need to teach students how to respectfully interact with one another. International folk dance can be a tangible solution. “Students realize that we may have different ways of expressing our cultures,” says Baltimore County public school teacher Karen Kuebler. “But we all use the same instrument in dance.”
“The overall goal is community building,” says Margaret Bary, whose curriculum at Brooklyn Friends School includes folk and international dance. “That’s very explicitly taught through partnering skills and working together as a group to accomplish dances.”
Richard Fischer, who leads folk dance clubs at Princeton Friends School in New Jersey, shares this goal. His students work in two groups: second to fourth grade and fifth to eighth grade. “I’m primarily interested in integrating children of different ages and personalities and dance backgrounds,” he says, which encourages them to overcome the grade-level hierarchies of elementary and middle school.
Here, the three educators give their advice and ideas for creating an international dance club at your school.
Link the club to the school’s mission or curriculum
In a previous teaching position, Kuebler developed an international dance club based on her school’s reading program: Students earned points and figuratively traveled to different countries based on the number of minutes they read. For four months she led them through folk dances of several countries: the Mexican hat dance, the French cancan, a Japanese fan dance, a candle dance from the Philippines, a dance with scarves in India, an African drum dance and a Native American eagle dance.
Fischer, who also teaches math, once used the Hungarian csango dance to teach computer sorting algorithms to
students as young as third grade. The dancers wore numbers pinned to their shirts, and the patterns they created through dance corresponded to the algorithms. Fischer also invites faculty members to the folk dance club to teach dances they may know. “We have a Chinese language program, and we’ve had teachers come in and teach Chinese ribbon dances,” he says.
Create multifaceted lesson plans
Kuebler began each session of her international dance club with a snack related to that day’s country—such as tortilla chips for Mexico or naan bread for India. She then handed out a one-paragraph blurb about the history and culture of that country, which she put together from researching a variety of sources. Before beginning the day’s dance, she reinforced the student’s geography studies by locating the country on a globe. And for the dance portion of the meeting, integrating props into dances—such as sombreros for the Mexican hat dance or scarves for an Indian dance—engaged the students and helped keep each country distinct in their minds. The students each kept a world map, on which they posted a sticker of each country’s flag as they visited it.
When it comes to the dancing, keep it simple
Kuebler’s approach was to choose five steps from each dance to teach. “I call it ‘five steps to cultural dance,’” she says. “It’s important to realize that you should not be overwhelmed when you are learning the dances. And it’s important not to overwhelm the students.”
On Friday mornings at Princeton Friends School, students can choose to either study or dance in a schoolwide folk dance session. Fischer or another teacher might demonstrate a dance at the beginning of the year, but as the year progresses, many students simply catch on by watching other students.
Invite the school and the local community to join the discussion
Brooklyn Friends School holds an annual family folk dance in January, when family members attend and join in the fun. “What makes it so successful is that each grade learns a number of dances in preparation, but each has one dance that is their special dance,” Bary says. “By teaching that dance to the whole community, that grade gets to shine. The kids are acting as teachers to their parents.”
Kuebler recommends bringing in members of the local community—dance-affiliated or not, such as the school’s librarian or a local storeowner—to be interviewed by students about a particular culture they are studying. “You get to know people, and then you feel more comfortable,” she says. “And then the differences aren’t really differences, they’re just discussion topics.” DT
Ashley Rivers is a writer and dancer in Boston.
YouTube is one of your greatest resources to learn international folk dances. Richard Fischer also finds a wealth of material by joining e-mail lists, such as that of “Pourparler,” an annual gathering of teachers of traditional dance who work with children. Local universities can be an invaluable resource, both for your own enrichment and as a source of guest teachers.
Photo by Jeff Bary, courtesy of Brooklyn Friends School