About 40 sixth-grade girls gather in the gym at P.S. 71 for their dance class with instructor Angie Riepensell. After a warm-up and series of exercises, Riepensell explains the final activity. She will move and they will follow. She hits play on her iPod and the music is immediately recognizable: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” She starts walking, crouched, hands held zombie-like in front of her. The students trail behind, mimicking. Then she does a shoulder isolation. They get that, too. Every 15 seconds or so, Riepensell performs a different movement, guiding the students without vocal cues. By the end of the song the class is performing Jackson’s famous choreography in unison.
This sort of non-verbal communication is one way that Riepensell teaches the discipline and respect that are the bedrock of P.S. 71’s dance curriculum. Now in her second year at the school, which has an enrollment of about 1,600 K–8 students in the Bronx, Riepensell launched the dance program last year with her friend and colleague, Judy Kurjan. Unlike most public school dance teachers who must go it alone in their first year, these two young women—and their students—benefited from the strength of their partnership.
Riepensell and Kurjan met in 2006, when both began the graduate program in dance education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. In their first year, they roomed together during a study abroad trip. The following year, they shared a tiny apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. A couple of months before graduation, the roommates attended a job fair for beginning arts teachers. “Two assistant principals”—both from P.S. 71—“walked up to us, saw that our nametags said ‘Dance,’ and set up an interview,” says Riepensell.
P.S. 71 had experimented with after-school dance classes, and principal Lance Cooper was now ready to add dance to the curriculum. He had discovered the benefits of hiring in pairs when he had added new programming in music and visual arts.
“We don’t have arts expertise,” Cooper says, “so if those teachers have questions, they can go to each other. When we hired two at once, it clicked.” Even though they each received other offers, Riepensell and Kurjan couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work together.
For the 2008–09 school year, they each taught about 25 classes a week. Kurjan spent most of her time in the dance room with the elementary school students, while Riepensell taught middle school students in the gym. But that didn’t keep them apart. They observed and sometimes assisted in each other’s classes. And each day, they spent over an hour together traveling from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to the Bronx, which provided plenty of time to discuss challenges and develop and refine strategies.
The two teachers approached their classes with similar educational goals. “Once we got to meet the kids, which is something we like to do before getting too set on any specific course, we decided that classroom management was a big issue,” says Riepensell. “We wanted to make sure they understood the etiquette of dance class and what we expected of them.” They built a curriculum based on their work at NYU and the New York City Department of Education Blueprint for Dance Education. They used creative movement to teach values like respect and discipline. For instance, young students play games with skipping and galloping. By being careful not to bump into each other, they gain spatial awareness. Older students mirror each other’s movements, focusing on non-verbal communication and body control. Throughout the dance program, students are encouraged to work non-verbally and learn with their bodies. This practice reinforces lessons on respect and etiquette and focuses students’ attention on dance’s fundamental physicality.
Students of all grade levels at P.S. 71 take dance, but not necessarily in the same school year. It depends on scheduling—and this fall, the schedule took a big hit when Kurjan left to take a teaching job closer to her family. Without time for the school to replace her, Riepensell is now on her own.
But distance hasn’t severed the partnership. Because Kurjan knows many of Riepensell’s students, she offers insights about approaches and strategies that worked last year during their frequent phone conversations
For Kurjan, who is developing new dance programs at two schools in Baltimore, her experiences at P.S. 71 continue to give her strength. “Angie’s always in my head,” she says. “It’s ingrained. Each of us has the other one on her shoulder.” DT
Katie Rolnick is assistant editor at Dance Spirit and has an MA in cultural reporting and criticism from NYU.
Photo by Chianan Yen for NYU Steinhardt