Spend a Saturday morning with Rima Faber and her 2-, 3- and 4-year-old dancers at Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, DC, and it’s easy to see why her teaching is lauded. Minutes before class, as she organizes her bag of tricks—scarves, books, palm-sized stuffed animals and assorted other teaching tools—she says, “Everything I do has a purpose in learning dance and in learning learning and in learning to be creative.”
Faber is an evangelist when it comes to teaching dance to children. She founded the Washington, DC–based youth studio and company The Primary Movers in 1979, which for 21 years served as a laboratory for implementing her methods and theories of how to impart big ideas about movement, creativity, imagination and mind-body connections to little people. In 1998 she was instrumental in founding the National Dance Education Organization, the largest nonprofit group for dance teachers spanning pre-K to higher education. Most recently she has been chair of the dance task force for the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, which this month has released new national standards for teaching dance.
“Rima is a master teacher,” says Karen Bradley, an associate professor at University of Maryland and a member of the dance standards team. “She’s engaging, she’s aware of every single thing that’s going on in the room, she responds in the moment to what they’re doing—if they wander off, she knows how to pull them back in—she’s funny, they’re amused by her, as well, and she knows how to talk to little kids.”
Like a mother hen with a coif of cropped red hair, she firmly leads her flock of wiggly youngsters, never missing a beat reining in the misdirected or distracted, coddling the hesitant ones and complimenting everyone, individually and as a group. “Three-year-olds are just grasping that they have a body, just grasping language and just beginning to understand protocols,” she says, noting that to start the class, she asks all the students to enter together, so they will feel integrated into the group from the outset—and so they won’t run wildly around the studio before everyone arrives. From there she introduces a song with movements that allow her charges to fly away like pigeons, but return to her at the nest. A brief segment on stretching teaches functional anatomy and body hemispheres: “What can we stretch?” she asks. “Our arms,” a pink-clad 3-year-old offers. “Can we stretch our arms front and back, up and down?” Some in the class suggest other parts: elbows, knees, hips. But in a few brief minutes, Faber changes pace and activity, before anyone can get bored or distracted.
There’s a method and plenty of science behind all these seemingly simple exercises. And Faber wants to see teaching of dance, from the youngest preschoolers to those in higher education, evolve. She was invited to helm a committee of artists and educators formed in 2011 to articulate the national core standards for dance. The group she calls her “dream team” met over a period of three years and came to a consensus on what students at every stage should understand about the art of dance. The national voluntary arts education standards—which in addition to dance include media arts, music, theater, visual arts—describe what students should know at each grade level and specifies what makes them ready for college and career.
While physical mastery plays a part in the standards, Faber says the goal is to understand dance and dancemaking. In doing this, students enhance cognitive learning, develop critical thinking and understand approaches to making art. “Just as we want to teach students not just to memorize a book but to understand the meaning of what they’re reading, and to write their own book, why should we be teaching dance that is only specific steps? We want to teach our students to read and speak dance, to create dance.”
The first national arts education standards created in 1994 have served as a blueprint for two generations of dance teachers, especially those in public education, for whom the standards were originally created. With the politicized and growing emphasis on core standards nationwide, Faber said it was time to update the standards for 21st-century classroom and studio teachers. The standards are both general enough to serve a broad cross-section of dance educators and specific enough that teachers from early childhood to college will be able to build lesson plans, classroom activities and curriculums that incorporate cognitive development. Eventually, there will be online video examples to make assessments easier and more uniform.
Beyond prepping children for rare careers with professional dance companies, the idea is that dance is essential to developing young brains. It’s a tool for teaching creativity, language acquisition, gross and fine motor skills, synthesis of ideas and critical thinking. The standards are built as a grade-by-grade progression. A high school student might be asked to “project meaning to an audience by projecting artistic intent from more than one genre or dance style and explain what a dancer must do.” It’s more, Faber points out, than just accomplishing a flashy leap or a high kick. “It’s the understanding of what a dancer has to do. And by the end of that term, they should be able to explain that,” she says. In the early childhood classroom, there is a greater focus on motor development, coordination and refinement of basic movement skills. For example, can a student discern the difference between a skip and a gallop and demonstrate that physically? What about the difference between a hop, a jump and a leap? And can a child see a skill and replicate it fairly well on his or her own body?
In the studio, Faber brings a rich and varied background to her work with even the youngest dance students. She began her early dance training in Manhattan, where she grew up immersed in the artistic world. Her father, Harry Gitlin, was a lighting designer and colleague of luminaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. As a child she studied with Blanche Evan, a pioneer in dance therapy, and Anna Sokolow, and, by 13, Faber was taking adult classes at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. In high school she was invited to take company class, where she encountered Graham and many of the dancers from that golden era, among them Bertram Ross, Yuriko, Helen McGehee and Stuart Hodes.
She was drawn to academics, as well, and set out for Bennington College at 17, where she fell in love with Cunningham technique. After college she worked in New York with the Judson Church crowd, went to Yvonne Rainer’s loft, where she experienced Steve Paxton’s early contact improvisation experiments, and did street dances with Deborah Hay. Over the years Faber has acquired vast knowledge and experience in multiple somatic and body techniques, which she incorporates into her lessons and into the standards.
“I joke that I spent the first 20 years of my life getting the best training there was,” she says, laughing, “and then I spent the rest of my life undoing it. I kept the essence, the power of movement, the dynamic, the emotional energy that children especially relate to.”
Instead of explanations, Faber favors vivid images and practical tools to help children conceptualize abstract ideas, especially since she says they can’t really abstract until about age 10 or 11. “I can’t just say, ‘Let your head move upward and forward.’ They won’t relate to that.” Instead, to work on vertical alignment, she might give each a palm-sized stuffed animal to place on the head and have them move about without it falling. “An animal on their head is sensory integration; it’s something they can feel,” she says.
One of Faber’s many teaching success stories over the years is Philadelphia-based teacher and choreographer Meg Foley, who took classes and danced with Faber’s Primary Movers from 4 until her early teen years. “I was encouraged to be curious, open and to not know as well as to seek,” she says. The emphasis on improvisation from a very young age has made Foley fearless as a choreographer. “Looking back I realize there was a lot of discovery. Rima did not explain the pedagogy to us. Rather, she let us just experience it, knowing that ultimately it will actually become a part of the student. She trusts the intelligence of the mind-body theories.”
As the core dance standards get disseminated, Faber hopes that teachers around the country—those in public schools and those in studios and conservatories alike—will also trust the cognitive approach encouraged in the standards. “These standards focus on the process of arts making, not on the content,” she says. “We are not dictating what teachers should be teaching. We are dictating the general process: What do people need to know who have to make art?” DT
For the complete core dance standards, go to arteducators.org/research/nccas.
Lisa Traiger writes about the performing arts and teaches dance appreciation in Rockville, Maryland.
Photos by Linda Spillers