“Let’s do the Mr. Wiggles combination that we’ve been practicing,” says Jamee Schleifer to a room of eager fourth- and fifth-grade students. Out of her 25 classes at PS 253—The Magnet School of Multicultural Humanities—Schleifer has handpicked these 20 students to join The Dance Club, which meets for 30 minutes on Friday afternoons. The soft-spoken teacher sports Adidas pants, a T-shirt, hoop earrings and a chained cuff, and she gets on her students’ level, joking with them as she demonstrates fresh hip-hop moves. A former member of NYC performance group The Hip Hop Technicians, Schleifer prides herself on being the first public school hip-hop teacher in Brooklyn.
Schleifer has been teaching pre-K through fifth grade at the diverse Brighton Beach school since 2002, and due to the popularity of her program, her classes were moved from the auditorium to a brand-new dance studio complete with mirrored walls, ballet barres and red curtains. On the walls hang posters defining “Deejay” and “Hip Hop Culture,” and the hallway outside her studio displays dance photos cut from magazines to inspire students. One image is of Jacques d’Amboise, founder of the National Dance Institute, who was Schleifer’s mentor for eight years.
In 1986, with a BFA from Brooklyn College and an MA in Dance Education from New York University, Schleifer was teaching at her Brooklyn training grounds, Miss Phyllis Dance Studio, when she wrote to d’Amboise expressing her admiration for his work at NDI. D’Amboise extended an invitation for Schleifer to join him in the NDI training program. “I learned from Jacques that it doesn’t matter how well students dance, or if they even know their left foot from their right, as long as they have a willingness to try,” she says. “It’s all about if they have that passion.”
Shortly after, Schleifer was hired at an independent Brooklyn middle school, where she developed her interdisciplinary curriculum. “My background was in tap and ballet, but these kids weren’t having that,” she says. “They would boycott me, but then I would see a kid in the corner doing hip-hop-like moves, and I’d ask, ‘How come you can do that, but you won’t do these other styles?’”
Schleifer started incorporating street styles into her class, starting with hip hop and then reaching backwards to its roots. “Hip hop didn’t just happen in a vacuum,” she says. “Through that they learned African dance and tap dance. Hip hop is my hook, and then I can go anywhere.”
Now, Schleifer teaches at PS 253, a multicultural public grade school where students speak over 62 languages, which required refining her teaching method once again. “I came in with hip hop, and they were like, ‘What is that?’” she says. “Some Pakistani kids, for example, didn’t even have music in their houses. I had to start from square one.”
To be sure that students are grasping new movement vocabulary, she uses imagery and tells stories with her choreography. The Dance Club, for example, learns a mock fight in pairs to perform at their end-of-semester show—one ducks while the other (carefully) swings. The short session whizzes by, and there’s no question that these kids are having fun, not even realizing that Schleifer has slipped technique and dance history into their weekly lesson. “I just want it to be in them, so when they click on the TV, they can say, ‘Oh, that’s Gene Kelly. I remember,’” she says. “If they become dancers, that’s great. But my goal is to instill a joy, a desire to ask their parents to take them to see a show, and a recognition and appreciation for dance.” DT
Photo courtesy of Jamee Schleifer
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