Hundreds of educational and business leaders from across the nation met in San Francisco at the Arts Education Partnership Forum last month to proclaim the value of the arts to a comprehensive education, to 21st century skills, and to a healthy economic future. I believe these professionals when they preach to a choir of like-minded leaders about the value of the arts. A few even go further and actually speak to the unique contribution of dance, the only art form that so deliberately involves the body. Yet, I wonder how many truly understand that the impediment to truly realizing the promise of dance education is not merely a lack of funding. Even when there was a relative strong amount of funding for arts education, little dance was offered in California schools. Dance education seems to be caught in a cycle where one misinformed generation perpetuates the next with regard to the few, simple, basic-yet-essential needs for dance.
Despite the many frustrations of teaching dance in schools, dedicated artists continue to try to make things better. They come to Luna Dance Institute (often paying out of their own pocket) to improve their teaching practice and for collegial support as they collectively try to address many challenges. The systemic obstacles: no California credential in dance; little acknowledgement, understanding or implementation of dance standards; and zero quality control (all very real needs but beyond the scope of this article and addressed elsewhere), continue to erode professional confidence and program sustainability. Yet, these individuals are committed to sharing their art form with the next generation so they work hard to contort their knowledge and values about dance into a system that has no room for dance. Literally.
For the past ten years, we’ve collected data about the field from the practitioners who come to our professional workshops. We tackled first what seemed to be the biggest issue: dance teaching artists who feel disrespected and under appreciated. They were bothered that classroom teachers sat in the back of the room on their laptops during class then criticized the artist’s classroom management; dance classes were canceled at the last minute for testing, picture day or simply because the students had misbehaved and missing dance class seemed an appropriate punishment. Once, during a stormy February, a dance teacher called me crying, “Patricia, I’ll tell you why I want to quit this work–I drove for more than an hour in the pouring rain to come teach and when I got here, the school secretary said that the kids had just left on a field trip. Would it have killed them to call me?” Dance teachers were frustrated when they are not considered a valued part of the school culture. At the same time, classroom teachers complained that dance artists weren’t doing their job either–that little dance was going on in the dance class. Dance artists didn’t understand age-appropriate curriculum and were trying to teach children to follow dance steps that were too challenging; or they didn’t know how to teach to a wide range of learners. Some complained that dance teachers were simplifying things so much–trying to teach academic concepts through dance to the extent that not much dance was happening. Luna’s approach to this problem was to align our professional development curricula and create structures to address the teacher-artist partnership. As a result we have a number of best practices to share that are catching on in the field.
Currently, the biggest area of frustration is space. As we make a collective list of all of the places we teach (presumably so we can create some best practices for each), the list becomes increasingly surreal: the multipurpose room, the gym and the cafeteria elicited complaints typical of all shared space–dirty, poor acoustics, too big, too much equipment. Then, the classroom filled with desks, chairs and other furniture, the hallway, or the lobby. At the audible gasps of colleagues, one teacher blurts out, “that’s nothing–I taught in a stairwell” to which another participant simply states, “bathroom.”
While all schools complain about a lack of space for all of the activities they want to offer, dance should not be included as just another activity to juggle. The content of the dance discipline is to explore the body moving IN SPACE. School photos and book fairs can arguably be set up in a classroom, or even a hallway (nothing should be offered in a bathroom). But dance requires open, safe space for exploration and motion–or, it isn’t dance.
Another popular frustration is the annual or semi-annual dance performance, talent show or recital. While dance is a performing art and showing one’s ability, understanding and skill in dance is an important aspect of the art form, it is an unrealistic expectation that a dance teacher allocate so much of teaching time (especially in a ridiculously short 10-week “residency”) to rehearsing and preparing for a show. I believe that this practice has been established from some misguided presumptions about what parents want and what “arts education” is. Parents want to support their children’s education and participate in what they are learning. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that they want their children to be performing on stage for hundreds of adult strangers, nor does it mean that they want to sit in an uncomfortable auditorium chair for two hours to see 4 minutes of their child on stage. Many parents are savvy enough to assess the value of arts learning at appropriate age levels and we do not necessarily do the field any favor by presenting a show for public consumption at the expense of offering a quality arts education. As artists, we can use our imagination to find age-appropriate ways to showcase student work, include the parents, and create a rigorous curricular progression that is visible to the entire community. Perhaps, once the community sees the value of a strong dance program, they will advocate for enough money to educate ALL children and extra funds to allow those interested in pre-professional performances to have the time and space to rehearse.
No less hindering, though maybe not as well known, is the issue of fingerprinting. Dance teaching artists, often itinerant workers, must get fingerprinted before working with California children. This is a good thing. However, living in the age of technology, when “life scan” fingerprinting is the state of the art, why is it that teachers must pay $106 a pop to each and every district, city, and county they work in, every year. Even if an organization covers the cost, as in the case of Luna, our employees must get separately fingerprinted for the Oakland District, San Francisco District, Berkeley District, and the Department of Justice for our work in social services. (In the past, the cities that these schools and agencies were located in required their own sets of prints, as well.) This process is so cumbersome and complicated that its point–to protect young children–must get lost as I’m sure that many teachers just ignore the law and there is not enough arts education infrastructure for reinforcement. Meanwhile, organizations such as ours pay a ton of money in fees and time for our staff to be fingerprinted for working in the very districts that cut their budgets for arts education.
Luna’s current goal is to develop a cadre of very highly educated and skilled dance teaching artists who are empowered to use their creativity on behalf of bringing children to dance. One objective is to keep these highly qualified teachers IN the field. It is not only about money. Teachers teach because they have a deep desire to share what they know and love with others. Yet, there is only so much they can do on their own. Employers of dance teachers need to advocate for a progression of learning, for adequate space and for professional development. They must champion the PURPOSE of dance education by advocating the details. If schools (students, teachers and parents) don’t see high quality, progressive learning, they will not value dance. Dance can and will be replaced by gardening programs, kung fu, math tutoring and other options. We need the professionals in our field to be the strongest they can be and we need to make visible the true value of dance education beyond the 10 week isolated residency. Then, our dance programs will be as secure as any other school program and the complimentary problem of recruiting and retaining professionals to our field will be mitigated as job security is made possible.
Woodworth, K.R., Gallagher, H.A. and Guha, R. (2007) An Unfinished Canvas. Arts Education in California: Taking Stock of Policies and Practices. Summary Report. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International
Guha, R., Woodworth, K.R. et all (2008) An Unfinished Canvas. Teacher Preparation, Instructional Delivery, and Professional Development in the Arts. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International
Ng, N. (2008) No Dancer Left Behind; Chasing the Dance Credential. InDance. March 2008.