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When someone tells you dance class isn't as important as say, algebra class, there's now solid evidence to prove he or she wrong. Sir Ken Robinson, an advisor on education in the arts to government, recently made a case on Ted.com that dance education should be treated as equal, if not more important, due to the physical benefits, as other subjects in school.

He made it clear that he wasn't arguing against the importance of mathematics, but rather "the equal importance of dance with the other arts, languages, mathematics, sciences and the humanities in the general education of every child."

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Nigel Lythgoe with NDEO executive director Susan McGreevy-Nichols (third from right) and NDEO staffPeanut butter and jelly. Barnum and Bailey. Rodgers and Hammerstein. And now, NDEO and Dizzy Feet.

As part of the National Dance Education Organization’s conference this year in Miami, Nigel Lythgoe announced a new partnership between his Dizzy Feet Foundation and NDEO to support dance education standards. Lythgoe, the co-creator of television dance powerhouse “So You Think You Can Dance,” co-founded Dizzy Feet in 2009 to increase access to dance education in the United States, mainly by exposing children in low-income areas to the artform via local organizations and dance study scholarships. It’s no surprise, then, that he was eager to partner with NDEO, a fellow nonprofit devoted to advancing dance education through advocacy, professional development, standards and support services. The two organizations will now combine their considerable powers and outreach to keep dance education on the up-and-up—in all genres of dance and in every institution where it is taught.

"We are honored to earn the respect of the Dizzy Feet Foundation, which recognizes NDEO for its work in advocating for quality dance education across the US," says Susan McGreevy-Nichols, executive director of NDEO. "The partnership with DFF will help NDEO reach a broader audience."

This year’s conference, which began on October 23 and will continue until the 27th, is focused on “The Art and Craft of Teaching.” Hundreds of dance teachers were present to hear Lythgoe’s announcement.

Photo courtesy of NDEO

Photo by Nisian Hughes

It may seem that the stork dropped Wendy Whelan at New York City Ballet's doorstep--but she was actually born in the small city of Louisville, Kentucky. Though she never got the chance to meet Balanchine, she was familiar with his neoclassical style when she arrived at the School of American Ballet. She credits Robbie Dicello at the University of Louisville Dance Academy for instilling in her a working knowledge and love of the famous ballet-maker.

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Former Ailey principal Nasha Thomas-Schmitt with Newark AileyCampers

Though Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater enjoys super-star status as a company, its leaders know great dance often grows from humble beginnings. As part of the organization’s Arts in Education department, AileyCamp is designed to serve inner-city middle-school students nationwide. This summer, the oldest AileyCamp location, Kansas City, Missouri, celebrates 25 years of vital dance outreach. Other locations—from Miami to Newark—adhere to the same principles that have guided Kansas City for the past quarter-century.

Children must apply for the tuition-free summer camp, though dance experience is not a prerequisite. The most important attribute for students is the desire to learn and grow. Former Ailey dancer and director of the Berkeley/Oakland AileyCamp David W. McCauley says, “[Alvin Ailey] gently reminded us of our responsibility to give our very best. Remember who you are, imagine who you wish to be, and give it your all!” He adds, “Mr. Ailey always said to his dancers, ‘You are all gods and goddesses!’” AileyCamp presents similarly supportive “daily affirmations,” or resolutions of love and encouragement, ceremoniously recited by a different camper each day.

The day camp offers classes in ballet, jazz, Horton technique, and West African dance, as well as workshops that foster self-expression and personal development. The program also provides counseling in nutrition, conflict resolution, sexual responsibility, and substance abuse prevention. Dancers participate in a culminating public performance at the end of the six-week session.

Photo by Joe Epstein, alvinailey.org

Selwyn's outreach students get excited about male choreographers.

Keep male students engaged in dance class.

It’s your first day at a new school. You’ve gone over your lesson plan and moved the desks out of the way. Now, you’re staring at a sea of young faces, several of whom—mostly the boys—are eyeing you warily.

Chances are you’ve encountered your share of similar situations, since it’s not uncommon for students to be anxious when trying something new. But teachers across the nation say that male students aren’t as reluctant to move as stereotype might suggest. “Every kid wants to jump, turn, use his imagination, laugh and sweat,” says teacher Adam Holms, who for three years has led a summer residency at the Los Lojas Community School in Ecuador. “Dance class takes the best aspects of physical education but puts an artistic spin on it.” Still, there’s no question that boys have different learning needs than girls and possess a different physical energy that needs to be harnessed or explored within class.

Use a Hook

When Lynn Reynolds started teaching at West Briar Middle School in Houston, male participation in her elective dance program was nonexistent. In her third year, she enlisted three boys to partner girls in a tango performance number. The next year, she decided to try to attract even more boys by launching a hip-hop and break-dancing class. “I started hip hop with the girls and let the word of mouth spread,” she says. “Once I had a few boys, I took them into gym class to show off their b-boy moves. This year I have 75 boys enrolled.”

Sometimes what will hook students will change from school to school. Amanda Selwyn, artistic director of New York City–based organization Notes in Motion Outreach Dance Theatre, works with school faculties and administrations to tailor dance workshops and residencies to the specific needs of each student population. At one high school in Brooklyn, the principal requested that Selwyn open with a Latin dance unit, to cater to the predominantly Latino population. Although 10th- and 11th-grade boys might normally be reluctant to participate in mandatory dance class, in Selwyn’s case they were eager to dance with and impress the girls.

Provide Role Models

Holms, Reynolds and Selwyn all recommend showing boys of all ages pictures and videos of professional male dancers. Selwyn leads units on male choreographers. “I say, ‘Here is a strong, masculine man who dances for a living; you can dance, too,’” she says. “Boys are especially impressed with athleticism.”

Reynolds has decorated her dance classroom at West Briar with posters of male ballet, modern and hip-hop dancers alike, to show boys the various avenues male dancers can pursue.

NYC teaching artist Karen Curlee, who co-directs outreach organization Together in Dance and leads non-elective 10- to 20-week residencies in schools for grades K–5, often has students watch videos of classic dance works and then choreograph their own sequence based on what they saw. She shows dances such as “Sinner Man,” from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, and Martha Graham’s dramatic Steps in the Street. She finds that young boys enjoy emulating the strong, passionate moves they see onscreen.

Make Dance Physical

“With the dearth of phys ed, outdoor play and recess, boys are so happy to get up and get moving,” says Curlee. In her creative-movement classes for elementary-aged students, she emphasizes the joy and fun of movement rather than the fine points of technique. One of her lesson plans involves showing Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and discussing the idea of everyday movement as dance. She notes that when asked to create their own sequences, boys often incorporate sports moves—dunking a basketball, kicking a soccer ball or sliding into home plate. “I support and encourage those choices,” she says. “They’re creating locomotor movement using shapes that are instinctual to them.”

When teaching technique, it’s best to start by letting boys move as they want, then refine their moves. During an across-the-floor series Holms might challenge boys to jump over an obstacle, and then say, “Wow, you jumped really high—but can you come down with pointed feet and make no sound?”

With energetic boys, you may have trouble getting them to slow down. “Boys want to move big,” Reynolds says. “They attack movement. Getting through warm-up is the hardest part of class. They want to get to the ‘real’ stuff.” Stress the importance of warming up, but let boys know that they do have something to look forward to. Reynolds says her boys are more willing to slow down for warm-up or to learn choreography if they know that they will get to do bigger moves at the end of class.

Create a Community

Boys of all ages need to feel like they’re part of a group. Give them opportunities to perform for and receive feedback from each other. In break-dance class at West Briar, boys enjoy the cypher, a circle in which each boy gets to present his best moves while the others cheer him on.

Holms suggests not asking students to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself: “If I’m sweating right along with them, they say, ‘He’s doing it; I can do it.’” Positive encouragement works best. Boys need to be challenged, but if they’re new to dance, they may be more likely to open up if they know they won’t be told what they’re doing is wrong.

In Curlee’s creative-movement classes, “it’s about meeting boys where they are and having them find their own creativity and voice,” she says. “I’m not judging or giving steps that they have to follow. They create their own work from their own body vocabulary, and they gain confidence and self-esteem from that.” DT

Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer in New York City.

Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Amanda Selwyn and Notes in Motion Outreach Dance Theatre

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