Everlea Bryant wasn’t a medical student. She was a dance performance major at the University of Florida—which made designing a dance program for youth with sickle cell anemia especially daunting. Individuals with sickle cell anemia have a range of limitations, including osteopathic issues and severe, sudden pain crises that can be triggered by dehydration or too much exercise.
To create the program, which Bryant completed as part of her Dance in Healthcare certificate at the University of Florida, she examined hundreds of medical journal articles, synthesizing information about the disease, its symptoms and effective (and ineffective) exercise programs. She summarized her findings and, working alongside Professor Jill Sonke-Henderson, developed a dance program that incorporated contemporary jazz and hip-hop movement while allowing for frequent breaks and avoiding jumps, squats or weight-bearing moves. Bryant’s project was implemented through Shands HealthCare in Gainsville, Florida, and continues to operate today.
The Dance in Healthcare certification is a joint effort of the UF School of Theatre and Dance and the Center for the Arts in Healthcare Research and Education (CAHRE), which was co-founded by Sonke-Henderson. The 12-credit course of study incorporates seminar, studio and clinical coursework. Students learn the historical and contemporary use of the arts in healthcare, examine links between medicine and dance and participate in over 120 hours of clinical work at hospitals or other healthcare facilities. The goal is to develop creative artists who use movement to connect with people in a healthful way.
Dr. Rusti Brandman, co-director emeritus of CAHRE, says that life in the hospital can be a restrictive, passive experience for patients. “For an artist to come in and take what’s important to you—a movement or type of music or idea—and implement it as a dance or painting is very validating and healing,” she says.
While arts in medicine is a relatively new field, a 2007 survey of more than 1,800 healthcare facilities found that over 40 percent of them had arts programs. Artists such as Liz Lerman, Anna Halprin and Mark Morris have incorporated dance in healthcare into their companies’ work. And dancers like Bryant have found the UF training and certification a helpful credential and tool.
The dance-in-healthcare model, Brandman notes, operates differently from dance therapy. Dance therapy uses a psychotherapeutic model; practitioners use movement as a diagnostic tool and work toward a desired outcome. Dance in Healthcare, meanwhile, is therapeutic, but the artists attempt to connect with patients and contribute to their mental, physical and emotional well-being. Unlike dance therapy programs, which focus on patient outcomes, dance in healthcare emphasizes the ability to connect with patients through the creative process, without prescribed results.
When working in a healthcare setting, a dance artist’s goal is not necessarily to teach patients specific techniques, but to lead them through their own creative processes. “The artist is a kind of tour guide,” Brandman says. “Thus they need to have a keen awareness of the other person.” The UF certificate is open to non-dance majors, but students are expected to have an intermediate proficiency in at least one dance technique, as well as an acquaintance with improvisation and dance composition.
Hands-on clinical work, which introduces students to the logistics and life within the hospital, is an integral part of the certificate. Students shadow Brandman, Sonke-Henderson and other artists-in-residence as they work with patients. This work might take shape as one-on-one sessions in a patient’s room, a group workshop or a hospital performance.
The movements the dancers model and perform are patient-driven. For example, a woman awaiting a lung transplant describes the type of dance she will do when she’s recovered. Then an artist at her bedside translates these visions into improvised movement. Group workshops or onsite performances may be more technical and directed at patient health, such as helping individuals with cystic fibrosis practice Pilates and Laban breathing exercises.
The certificate is a unique credential for dancers seeking to launch or enhance their careers. Not only does it increase a dancer’s skill set and marketability, Brandman says that the ability to connect a funding proposal to health-related goals is “one more way that a company’s grant proposal might stand out.”
Bryant sees a direct link between her coursework and her current position as the owner of a Pilates, health and dance facility. “I had to learn how to deal with limitations, and work with medical partners, in an extremely structured environment,” she says. “When a client comes to me now and says, ‘I have such-and-such limitation,’ I don’t even flinch.” DT
Sara Versluis is a freelance writer in Virginia.
Photo: Dance major Sea Lee assists a Dance for Life participant at the barre. (courtesy of Lauren Arce)
Thirty-five years after beginning his career as a dancer and choreographer, David Parsons decided to do something he’d never tried before: go to grad school. In 2010, Parsons was one of 10 students to enter Jacksonville University’s brand-new Master of Fine Arts in Choreography. He wanted to experiment with new ways of using technology in performance—something he had little time for as artistic director of Parsons Dance. “It was a chance to spend time sequestered from the usual responsibilities I have as an artist,” Parsons says. Although it is a challenge to balance a graduate program workload with ongoing travel, production and teaching demands, the MFA’s low-residency format—summers in residency and fall and spring semesters off-site—allows Parsons and other mid-career artists to coordinate and connect their professional and academic work.
Jacksonville’s MFA program is one of three such low-residency programs, along with the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s MFA in Performing Arts–Dance and Hollins University’s MFA (in Roanoke, Virginia), which is offered in conjunction with the American Dance Festival. While each is distinct, their missions all aim to enrich and advance the careers of established performers, educators and choreographers. As mid-career artists, students bring a wealth of experience and discipline to the programs. The low-residency structure allows them to maintain their professional lives while developing new skills, expanding their pedagogy and exploring new approaches to performance and choreography.
Each MFA program requires two to three summer intensives, which consist of roughly six weeks of immersion study with a variety of guest artists and classes. The immersion experience—set apart from work and other obligations—allows students to engage in a constant dialogue with their peers. It is important to establish a sense of community before students leave, says Cari Coble, director of the Jacksonville MFA program. While diverse, the members of the cohort rely on one another for ideas, support and attaining the deep analysis that is at the core of the program.
During fall and spring semesters, students at UWM and Jacksonville take online courses, many of them seminar-style classes with readings, research and online discussions. Students in all three programs also work on independent projects, such as film techniques to document their work or mounting independently choreographed pieces, which may ultimately lead to culminating theses. Technology has streamlined the learning and communication process, and students and professors stay in touch via e-mail, Skype, cell phone and collaborative online tools such as Blackboard. Simone Ferro, MFA program director at UWM, can watch students’ studio samples online while talking with them on the phone.
Student Amy Baker Schwiethale finds that the stream of readings and discussions with her Jacksonville cohort seeps into her own teaching as an assistant professor of musical theater/choreography at Wichita State University. After reading a lecture about the Laban method and completing a movement assignment on herself, for example, she tested the concept on her students by giving three dancers each a different quality to apply to the same movement phrase. “It looked different on all of them and added texture to the piece,” she says. “It allowed me to understand my assignment even more.”
Daniel Gwirtzman, a choreographer and director of the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company, received his MFA from UWM in 2007 and says he saw a constant link between his professional and graduate work. “The added layer of scrutiny and accountability strengthened [my professional] work,” he says. The program helped him develop a more rigorous method of reflection and taught him to set measurable outcomes, which he now applies to his work with students and when writing funding proposals for his company. Graduate school also gave him new perspectives on creating and assessing work. “As a choreographer, one tends to work in a vacuum,” Gwirtzman says. “There’s not really a larger community developing and critiquing work.” Feedback from faculty and peers pushed him to explore the influence of musical theater; his dance musical Encore, which premiered in 2007 at Joyce SoHo and was an official selection of the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival, began as a project in one of his composition classes.
The three programs, all developed in the past 15 years, signal a shift in dance’s role in the world, particularly the academy. “There is a growing desire to write more about dance, to publish more about it, to broaden what we think dance is,” Coble says. A terminal MFA degree offers artists the opportunity to begin teaching or achieve tenure at the university level. Thomas DeFrantz, core adjunct faculty at Hollins/ADF, adds that in the process, “It opens up a space for them to rethink their relationship to dance.” DT
Sara Versluis is a freelance writer and former English teacher who lives in Virginia.
Photo by Heather Blanton, courtesy of Jacksonville University
Freddie-Lee Heath wins over PE instructors with his pop culture-inspired choreography
Lady Gaga’s voice reverberated through the hotel’s multilevel atrium. It was the second day of the Arkansas Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance’s convention, an annual gathering of instructors and college majors from throughout the state. Freddie-Lee Heath’s “Get your ‘Glee’ On!” packed dance workshop was held in the atrium, in full view—and earshot—of other guests. Susan Mayes, an instructor in the Health Science, Kinesiology, Recreation & Dance department at the University of Arkansas, looked up at the floors above her and spotted two girls dancing Heath’s choreography. “They had heard the music and came out of their room,” Mayes says. “There they were, in their pajamas, learning combos four floors above!”
Best known for his musical theater and tap choreography, Heath has used his tenure as the National Dance Association’s 2010 K–12 Dance Educator of the Year to encourage PE teachers to incorporate contemporary choreography into their dance units. He hopes that using dances modified from popular movies and TV shows, such as Stomp the Yard, Honey and “Glee,” will help PE instructors overcome their fears of teaching dance and encourage them to make dance engaging for their students.
“In a perfect world, I would have dance teachers teaching dance units,” Heath says. But with budget cuts, many states have rolled dance standards into PE classes. While sports and dance both rely on physical aptitude, strength and discipline, making the leap from teaching one to the other can be daunting for PE instructors. Those with little or no dance experience can be intimidated by teaching moves they themselves don’t feel comfortable doing. Other teachers, such as Kayla Daniels, a PE instructor at John Tyson Elementary School in Springdale, AK, have dance backgrounds but remain wary of teaching complicated choreography to reluctant students. “I was concerned about my students’ maturity level,” says Daniels, who attended both of Heath’s workshops at the ArkAHPERD convention.
Heath, who teaches at an inner-city magnet school in Raleigh, NC, is sensitive to their fears. He has worked as a dancer, choreographer and educator for over 20 years, and many of his students have little or no dance background. “I have to bring them gently into the fold,” he says.
Heath has presented his workshops at conferences across the country, and his upbeat, lighthearted manner quickly sets participants at ease. He begins the hour-long sessions with warm-ups and isolations. Then he introduces 8-count phrases slowly, giving participants a taste of more complex choreography, but always returning to basic movements. “He has so many variations of how you can do one step,” says Daniels. To execute a 180-degree turn, for instance, he has beginners take a single step toward the back of the room, while more advanced dancers might make a three-step turn completing one and a half revolutions. Heath checks in with participants frequently, asking them if they’re ready to move on and repeating the step if they’re not.
Rather than use unfamiliar dance terminology, Heath uses descriptive phrases and everyday terms—Beyoncé booty, robot hands—that participants can relate to. He slowly brings in more technical choreography, including attitude turns and syncopation, but always allows beginners to keep practicing basic steps if they don’t feel comfortable moving on. At the end of the workshop, he hands out sheets reviewing the music and steps in shorthand, often using the same language he uses in the workshop. One 8-count for Heath’s Honey routine, for example, reads: “Walk R/L/R/L; pop fist by head on 5; turn over back shoulder 6, 7; look right 8 (sucker punch).”
Throughout his workshops, Heath references ways to incorporate steps into a variety of classrooms. “He’s constantly talking about muscle groups and developmentally appropriate techniques,” Mayes says. For younger dancers, for example, a simple hop might substitute for a more complicated footwork pattern. Heath also considers age-appropriate music, telling elementary teachers that they can swap Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” for a more familiar and less controversial song such as “Thriller.” What’s important is that dance is relevant to students’ lives, says Heath. He uses choreography and music inspired by “Glee” because it’s popular among middle schoolers. It’s a way to capture students’ attention while also “tying in levels, spacing and slow, sustained movement,” he says.
While Heath acknowledges that some participants might forget the specifics of his choreography, he hopes the experience will break down their inhibitions to teaching dance. The temptation, he says, is to rely on a DVD or a video game like Dance Dance Revolution. Between his cue words and the actual steps, he hopes they’ll use even a small excerpt of his routines and build on it to make it their own. He wants to foster creativity in teachers and thus their students. “I always preface choreography with ‘What I’m giving you is just a skeleton,’” Heath says.
His workshops gave PE instructor Daniels the confidence to try his approach with her elementary-aged students. This year, she revamped her dance unit to focus less on traditional square dances and more on contemporary moves and music. “I honestly underestimated my students in thinking there would be no way they’d get it,” she says. “They do get it, as long as you have variations that start very, very simple and let them add as much as they want to a step.” DT
Sara Versluis is a freelance writer and former English teacher who lives in Virginia.
Photo by Nathan Acosta, courtesy of NCAAHPERD
The Kids Excel program in El Paso inspires students in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
The audience sitting on the gymnasium floor of Western Hills Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, fidgeted and squirmed. A few minutes into the Kids Excel dance performance, though, the fidgets and pokes began to mimic the arm movements of the dancers up front—the Western Hills fourth-grade class—as they leaped, twirled and threw their hands in the air. “Kids Excel! Kids Excel!” shouted the performers and much of their elementary-aged audience.
It is this infectious enthusiasm that drives the Kids Excel El Paso program, which uses dance to inspire curiosity, set high expectations and encourage self-discipline. “We’re using art to stimulate our students, to engage them to a point where minds are turned on,” says Gemtria St Clair, a former ballet dancer and executive/artistic director of Kids Excel. The approach has been so successful that FEMAP, a health and community development organization in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, contacted St Clair in the spring of 2008 about starting a similar program across the border.
“Send me a dance teacher,” said St Clair, who regularly trains potential Kids Excel instructors. FEMAP selected one of their staff members, Zulema Galindo, who has a background in folklorico, contemporary dance and ballet. In the fall of 2008, Galindo spent two weeks apprenticing with St Clair. The teachers kept in touch and last spring, Galindo shadowed St Clair in the classroom and behind the scenes, as St Clair coordinated a dance performance. In September 2010, Galindo began teaching more than 200 low-income students in Ciudad Juárez, a city that has become the epicenter of an increasingly violent drug war between Mexican drug cartels. Galindo now makes weekly visits to El Paso, where she observes St Clair teach the same curriculum she’s implementing in her own classroom.
When Galindo travels to El Paso, St Clair, who speaks some Spanish but is not fluent, relies heavily on nonverbal communication to demonstrate teaching techniques and classroom management methods. “Interestingly, the work is not really about talking,” she says. “It’s about doing and showing.” When necessary, other Kids Excel staff members serve as translators, and they are developing a Spanish version of the Kids Excel curriculum.
Both Kids Excel and Galindo’s program use the National Dance Institute (NDI) curriculum, which operates within the school day. Students learn fractions by experimenting with tempo, describe movement with adverbs and metaphors and move like liquid, gas and solid molecules. Furthermore, NDI techniques ask students to self-assess, meet standards of excellence and demonstrate focus—all valuable skills back inside the core classroom.
“The idea is that the success that they experience within an NDI program is going to spill over into every aspect of their life,” says Tracy Straus, NDI’s associate artistic director. In addition to her work with St Clair, Galindo spent five weeks in New York and Connecticut last summer, training with NDI and observing lessons in schools and summer camps.
NDI programs, which are free of charge to participants, target low-income students who have little, if any, firsthand experience with the arts. In El Paso, Kids Excel reaches 2,220 students in 26 schools; every fourth-grader in the schools attends a weekly 45-minute class. The sessions are upbeat and fast-paced. “There’s a whole bag of tricks for keeping children interested while they learn,” says St Clair.
Working with St Clair has exposed Galindo to an entirely new way of working in the classroom. “The first time I went to see Gemtria, I was struck by the rhythm of the class and her natural, expressive way of working with the students,” Galindo says. Unlike more traditional teaching methods, the approach allows students to make decisions and act as leaders, whether by asking them to demonstrate a step for the rest of class or perform a solo in a school performance. Galindo has learned to make teaching less formal, to use humor and to find ways to make every child feel successful. “I love what the class gives to the children,” she says. “In Juárez, the children are very stressed. In this class they can find something that lets them forget for a while what’s going on.”
“We’re trying to reach children who are challenged and troubled,” says St Clair. “You have to learn how to engage and motivate and inspire and bring those children along with you.” She trains Galindo and other instructors to assess qualitative details: How much fun are the students having? How much are they sweating? How engaged are all members of the class?
Asking for such complete commitment slowly changes the way that children perceive themselves. “As teachers we can kneel down in front of a child and say, ‘I’m not giving up on you,’” says St Clair. “That may be something they’ve never heard before in their lives.” DT
Sara Versluis is a freelance writer and former English teacher who lives in Minnesota.
Photo by Mario Galindo, courtesy of FEMAP