The 2010 Dance Teacher Awards: Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy introduces positive alternatives to kids from a tough neighborhood.SEAN MURPHY

Partham Middle School

Laurence, Massachusetts

Sean Murphy’s story is right out of Billy Elliot. Young Sean, growing up in Newry, a small industrial town in Northern Ireland, didn’t fit in with his peers. Because dancing for boys was uncommon at the time in his town, he got up the nerve to approach a teacher at an all-girl convent school. There, in a physics laboratory among Bunsen burners, Mary Glaze taught him to dance. Years later Murphy has become the kind of influential teacher that made him the man he is today.

For the past three years, Murphy has taught dance and reading to 7th- and 8th-grade boys and girls in a low-income community in Lawrence, MA. “The school is in a tough neighborhood and there are a lot of not so good things happening outside, but the kids are happy in my classroom,” Murphy says.

“The first time they came into my class, they wouldn’t move, and for them to remove their shoes and sit on the floor was the biggest thing,” he says about the boys from the predominantly Latino neighborhood. “It took a couple of months to have these macho boys  come in and lie on the floor and close their eyes and move in a semi-darkened room. They’re learning how to trust each other and their own bodies in space.”

With a background in modern dance and Laban Movement Analysis, Murphy teaches the way he was taught: getting the kids to move around on the floor and to feel the impulses for movement. He focuses on the freedom of expression rather than perfection. “We run in space, we carve in space, we play with level changes. I don’t look for the perfect second or the perfect arabesque; it’s what each of these young men and women can give me,” he says. “It’s their arabesque. It’s their second position.”

Murphy is proud that dance seems to help his students stay out of trouble outside the classroom. They go on to college, top boarding schools and vocational careers. And because many of them need help with their reading skills, he conducts a before-school reading program. “I get them to function for their next stage in their wonderful lives,” he says.

After moving from Northern Ireland to the U.S., Murphy studied in NYC with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis. He later earned a BFA and MFA from The Boston Conservatory. Jennifer Scanlon, former principal dancer with José Limón Dance Company who now teaches at The Boston Conservatory, says Murphy’s imagination makes him a great teacher—along with his boundless energy and passion.

“What I think is amazing is that he teaches history and art and he connects everything. He gets the kids involved in their heritage and themselves,” she says. “José Limón said, as a dancer, you must be courageous and compassionate, and to be a teacher I think that goes, too. Sean has that. He identifies with his students and makes them feel proud of who they are.”

Prior to joining the faculty of Parthum Middle School, Murphy worked for eight years for the school district in nearby Medford. He has taught around the Boston area at the Winchester Ballet Conservatory and at the New England Conservatory. In 1999, he founded his own modern dance troupe, Sean Murphy’s Moving Theatre Images.

In his free time, Murphy runs an after-school dance program that yields two major productions a year. They’ve done A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde and The Secret Garden. This past spring, they presented Disney’s High School Musical. The shows are so popular that as many as 200 children show up to audition for parts. The productions become a school-wide effort—custodians build the sets, teachers design and make costumes—and the parents and Lawrence community fill the theater to see their children perform. “It’s the escapism that we all look for—that time when we can be someone else that frees us up to be who we are.”

Photo by Erik Jacobs, courtesy of Sean Murphy

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