After a career spent honing her own teaching methods, Rima Faber leads the charge for national standards. 

Faber’s Saturday morning class at Joy of Motion Dance Center, Washington, DC

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.”

“I joke that I spent the first 20 years of my life getting the best training there was, then I spent the rest of my life
undoing it.”

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.

“Why should we teach dance that is only specific steps? We want to teach our students to read and speak dance, to create dance.”

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

 

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox