Flying from Oakland to Chicago to attend the 16th annual conference of the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO), November 5, 2014, I recalled my maiden voyage to NDEO in 2001. Back then I was the only person from northern California in attendance—and one of only three from the entire state. I felt excited about what was happening at the national level, yet also dismayed and a little embarrassed by my state’s lack of involvement in dance education as a field. This year, I was thrilled to attend with five of my Luna Dance Institute colleagues, as well as to join a reception with 30 California dance educators, representing about half of the Californians at this year’s conference, hosted by the California Dance Education Association.
When I first came to NDEO, I felt there was no category for Luna; now, we attend all special interest group (SIG) sessions: K–12, Private Sector, Dance & Disability, Advocacy, Higher Ed, and Early Childhood. We find them all relevant to our work, and we have a unique perspective to offer each conversation. At the same time, we work within a region and state that are behind most in per capita standards-based dance programs. National leaders, such as Joan Finkelstein, could help California build “dance for every child” programs like the recent initiative in New York City, but we remain stymied by a lack of teaching credential in dance. Without one, there is absolutely no incentive for policy- makers to support dance programs in any large-scale or systematic way. Artists in the San Francisco Bay Area demonstrate amazing innovation and creativity every day—we relish autonomy. At the same time, as artist-educators, it may benefit us to overcome our tendency toward individualism and consider more conversation and collaborative action toward making California a major force for quality and equity in dance education.
The focus of this year’s NDEO conference was collaboration, and we six from Luna presented as a panel. We spoke of our process of developing goals and assessments based on Luna’s mission to place and keep art at the center. We also shared Luna’s organizational structure of teaching artists as program administrators. People were intrigued.
In the Luna staff reflections presented in this article, my colleagues paint a clear picture of the conference and our dual roles as individual teaching artists and state representatives when we attend.
Before I moved to the Bay Area I’d never even heard of NDEO. When I did hear of it, I was dubious. Pay an annual membership fee, then shell out a sizeable sum to attend a four-day conference with hundreds of other dance educators, when half the people I interact with on a daily basis are dance teachers anyway? I’m too busy teaching, I thought.
Never in my life have I been around so many dance ed nerds. And when I say “nerds,” I mean that in the most loving way. What are some constructivist ways to introduce Pina Bausch’s choreographic process and history to students in school and studio settings? How does a child’s proprioceptive understanding of their kinesphere (or lack thereof) lead to school violence? How do we define the differences between a push and a reach? In what ways has our new, digital age promoted an underdevelopment of children’s vestibular systems, and how can I address this in a choreography class?
It was like my idea of heaven at a conference-sized Marriott accommodating the more than 1,200* conference participants. I could choose to attend 10 different workshops each day if I wanted to! I could look at all the nametags and see the whole country represented! I could take a class, listen to a panel, introduce myself, and learn about dance education practices, policies, and pedagogical approaches from all over the nation! It is difficult to choose one particular highlight of an experience at once so immersive and so professionally validating, but some impressions continue to resonate. As dance teaching artists, we are hungry—and we are not alone. We grapple with an arduous, even isolating, part of our daily practice—that is, trying to explain the importance of dance education in the lives of young people to the non-dance administrators we communicate with in schools, community settings, foundations, and statewide organizations. But we have peers nationwide undergoing similar experiences to whom we can turn for understanding, advice, and inspiration.
Those same people, with whom we might not otherwise have contact throughout the year, give a new perspective on what feels like the same concepts, re-examined in a refreshing way that reignites the teaching fire of discovery, creation, experimentation. These resonant ideas removed any lurking doubt I might have had about the value of NDEO. I’m now a believer.
*NDEO shared the conference with the American Dance Therapy Association.
I grew up dancing in a small island community where there was only one dance studio and one dance teacher. I remember vividly our excursions to take a master class in the city, or to see the Bolshoi Ballet—how my eyes widened and my skin tingled as I discovered the expansive scope of the dance world beyond our tiny little studio. Attending NDEO (conference) for the first time, I felt this same excitement in realizing anew how many dance educators are out there, nobly investigating, researching, and honing their craft. Sometimes it can feel like we’re the sole representatives for dance in our schools and communities. Then at NDEO we find overflowing conference rooms where we discuss and present and dance together. The sense of possibility and potential is real.
I was particularly struck by the number of teachers who showed up for the California Dance Education Association meeting, filling a hotel suite beyond capacity. When I exclaimed at our numbers, a fellow member speculated on what size room we might need if every dance teacher in California joined CDEA—if all of us, rather than considering membership a luxury, thought of it as a professional duty to ourselves and to the field. That would mean thousands of dance educators not only investing in their own personal development and training but also showing to the state of California that this is a serious profession—one that necessitates a dance teaching credential.
It may have been my first time at NDEO, but I immediately felt right at home—having taught dance for the last 20 years, I had something in common with every attendee: a robust commitment to dance education. Gathering in Chicago, we were an instant community, and I felt welcomed, inspired, pushed, and supported during my time there.
What excited me the most was being in a space reserved for both teaching and learning; the flow of ideas was rapid and crackling with vibrant energy. Thoughts about how to improve the state of dance education and each individual’s teaching practice were traded, reshaped, and challenged with every
panel, paper, and dance class. I was pleasantly surprised by the egalitarian environment—ideas and experiences “from the field” were taken in with respect, heads nodded in agreement, emphatic looks were exchanged, notes were furiously written to inspire at a later date.
Clearly, this time to connect is so needed on a national level. Working in dance education can be isolating. Many attendees are the only dance teacher in their school, or own the only dance studio in their town. The aim and value of dance education are often misunderstood by administrators, parents, and the community. As I face some of these challenges, I am lucky to call Luna my home base, as I am encouraged to connect and collaborate with my teaching peers and others in the community. As we shared on our panel, “Walking Our Talk: How Layered Collaborations Lead to Quality, Integrity and Possibility,” we each had a chance to talk about our integrated roles as teaching artists and administrators at Luna. A typical day for me at Luna starts in the morning, teaching alongside a classroom teacher to bring creative dance to underserved, low-income elementary school students, and in the afternoon, collaborating on development projects—grant writing, database entry, thanking donors.
I was excited to put faces with names I see day-to-day in Luna’s database. I especially enjoyed a talk by Loren Bucek, veteran dance educator and long-time Luna supporter, about her own research and experiences teaching dance to inner-city kids in Columbus, Ohio. I was so moved by her work, her commitment to her students, and her craft. I sometimes despair that I can’t give enough to my students, who regularly experience violence, lockdowns, and so many other challenges. In Dr. Bucek’s clear, emotional narratives I felt like she was speaking directly to me. As she candidly shared her experiences, some of my self-doubt fell away. In my notebook I paraphrased from her lecture: “We can’t change their entire situation, but can provide safe spaces to experiment with movement—to experience their power, tenderness, peace, productivity. Ask yourself how you can allow that hour of dance class to give them a voice.” The brief weekend will have a long-term impact on my teaching practice.
At this year’s NDEO conference I felt more grounded than I did my first year. Coming from a dance teaching artist background, I find certain issues in dance education are new to me, but at the conference I learned more from various perspectives. For example, did you know that schools in other countries—like Japan, England, and Singapore—struggle with finding qualified dance teachers because their region does not offer a dance teaching credential? This same issue is a predicament in our own state. At the K–12 SIG group, teachers shared their frustrations with inadequate dance space and unsupportive school principals, and as a group we discussed strategies to address our dilemmas. Having a place to hear about others’ involvements brought new ideas and comfort.
Each year I attend NDEO I grow closer to colleagues in the field whom I communicate with or read about. One night I shared dinner with Dr. Karen Bradley, head of MFA in Dance program at the University of Maryland and a researcher on brain-wave patterns and movement. When I told her I work for Luna, she raved about our organization’s incredible work and brilliant directors. At the “Global Connections” workshop, while choreographing a trio that embodied feelings of frustration, weaving patterns, and reminiscent smells, I discovered my fellow dancers included incoming CDEA President Kristin Kusanovich, whom I first met at Luna’s 20 Points of View, and Dance Teacher magazine editor Karen Hildebrand, whom I often send press releases. All three of us had the chance to expand our previously brief and electronic communications into the embodied present.
I am proud to have presented on Luna’s panel, which was well received, informative, and true to the theme of collaboration, and to have participated in NDEO, which always broadens my views and knowledge of dance education.
I returned from NDEO to California feeling immense gratitude for “my peeps”—the teaching artists, specialists, and educators who live and breathe dance education daily in pre-K through 12 settings and colleges and universities. Although the Bay Area is home to hundreds of dance companies, there is a dearth of dance education programs for children and youth that keep art at the center. I work in a county where I have advocated for dance education for 12 years, and I live in a state that currently does not have a dance teaching credential. Although it was inspirational to hear about the innovative mentoring practices between colleges and newly certificated dance teachers, it was also disheartening to return home to a place where these models are practiced in only a limited way.
Luna Dance Institute and the 92nd Street Y Dance Education Laboratory (DEL) are the only two independent organizations in the United States that offer comprehensive professional learning opportunities for teachers and teaching artists. I understand how important it is for Luna and DEL to make our voices heard even in the face of apathy toward dance education, and I believe it is important for many more dance educators to write and talk about what they are doing. This is one reason that, despite my disappointment upon my return, I also brought back renewed pride that dancers, as a group, are researching and writing about their teaching practices and owning the field of dance education.