Remember what it felt like to dance when you were 11, 12, and 13 years old? Remember feeling awkward in parts of your body—or perhaps your whole body? If you had dance in school, did the dance teacher show you specific movements or steps that involved dancing with a partner during PE, doing some arbitrary dance material that you feel self-conscious about to this day? When I began teaching dance as part of the Luna Kids Dance Middle School Inquiry Project, I wondered what it would be like to ask middle school students to explore dance concepts, be creative thinkers, collaborate with peers, and learn how to articulate using the language of dance. I was actually afraid! What a pleasant surprise it was to realize that although these adolescents are in a constant state of physical, emotional, and cognitive flux, their need for dance is transparent. And when we give them a safe and clear structure for it, they respond brilliantly to the opportunity to move.
Last year, Luna initiated its Middle School Inquiry Project as part of two larger district contracts with Oakland Unified and Berkeley Unified School Districts focused solely on middle school dance programming. We were excited about the opportunity to bring dance to a typically neglected population—adolescents in middle school. Our guiding questions for the project are: What aspects of the standards-based approach to dance teaching for sixth to eighth graders would look different from current models? How do we prepare kids for high school dance programs, when there are still gaps in receiving dance at all in grades K–8? Where does dance live in middle school? And what are the best—or even just the possible—delivery models for dance at the middle school level? Currently dance is being offered under the physical education umbrella; the PE teachers invited Luna to teach them how to integrate dance into their movement education programs. Offering it in PE makes it equitable and inclusive, giving all students exposure to dance education. There are some challenges to this model: the dance program can suffer from time constraints, huge PE class sizes, and conflicts for space. And dance is actually an art form, not an athletic activity, per se. But since there exists no California teaching credential in dance, the PE department is often the only place where dance can live in the state’s public schools. We envision a day when all students receive an introduction to dance via PE, and when comprehensive dance programs include a full-year, regularly scheduled, standards-based curriculum taught by credentialed dance teachers, as well as enrichment in all styles and forms from local and professional community dance groups. Until that day, we at Luna work with whomever is teaching dance—and we’re learning, through an action-research model, which curricula, structures, and support work best in various delivery systems.
Some middle schools want dance to enrich their programmatic offerings, especially when they realize that kids particularly need to move more during this developmental stage in which they often become more sedentary and less motivated. In adolescence the body is growing taller and wider as well as shifting cyclically and hormonally; it’s a time when kids are exploring their identity and power. The exterior shape of how kids move becomes sometimes more cautious, other times more explosive. Kids have shared with me that when they didn’t have to see themselves in a mirror, they enjoyed dancing in a way that is authentic to their own bodies. As a lifelong dancer, I empathize. Also, music is very important to middle school students; dance class is a place where they can explore and examine that passion. At this level of education, most kids have had some dance-related experience, whether directly or peripherally.
When we teach standards-based curriculum conceptually and with a creative focus, students often ask, “When are we gonna dance?”—often right in the middle of class! Interestingly, despite the spotty dance programming in most schools, by middle school most kids have rigid definitions of what dance is and is not.
I am not a big follower of how dance has been highlighted in popular media over the past few years—particularly on TV reality shows—but I know that we dance educators cannot ignore this influence. However, we can and should provide forums for talking about what kids are viewing and encourage them to find their own aesthetic responses in dance. I have seen exciting results. By the end of last year, 40 students in one class, identified as “low academic learners,” were able to articulate using dance language and to demonstrate more concrete understanding of concepts from other subject areas, using their dance class experiences. They were also making choices about how they could relate to others in the space, then using that new awareness in their social interactions outside of dance class. Given the limitations on time and space for movement during the school day, the 30-minute period of dance time is a precious and valued resource. I don’t always get to witness its full impact in the moment, but from examples like this, I trust that there is a powerful one.
The minute you set foot on a middle school campus as a dance teacher, you are in a world in which the energy can shift from high to low in the blink of an eye. Is this because kids didn’t eat a good breakfast? Sometimes. Is it because kids get lost trying to find their lockers between classes? Maybe. Could it be because as humans we all come to that place where our bodies go through what can seem like a complete metamorphosis without warning? Yes! This can be exhilarating for a dance teacher, because dance as a medium can be solely about that exact moment and its endless possibilities for discovery. Asking middle school students to bend, travel big through the space, make interesting shapes, invent a new movement, and practice language that describes dance can be tricky. However, when I see that they feel safe enough to boldly be seen and heard while using their bodies; that is a successful moment.
You never know what you are entering into on any given day, but as we at Luna continue our inquiry into what a developmentally appropriate and engaging dance curriculum looks like, we get closer, step by step, to achieving the dream of comprehensive K–12 dance education in California and beyond.
Do you teach dance in public middle schools? We welcome your insights and experience—please call us to participate in the Middle School Inquiry Project.