Documenting Dance Learning in Schools

By Sarah Sass


I started teaching dance as a bit of a fluke. Just a week after moving to San Francisco, I jumped into teaching, replacing a dance teacher who had left the school unexpectedly. The only qualification I needed was my recently acquired BFA in modern dance. Six years later, I’m essentially doing the same work: teaching children dance. The difference now is that my teaching is more focused and informed. I gear my curriculum to challenge each class based on my knowledge of learning theories, pedagogy, and child development. I can also relate my curriculum to what children are learning in the classroom and how their dance learning will progress this year and next.

Why does this matter? As I become clearer about what I’m teaching and why, it has become easier to articulate it to the classroom teachers and administrators whom I interact with daily. One of the hardest things about being a dance teaching artist (or any teaching artist) is that regardless of your teaching skill, you are seldom intrinsic to the school community. So your standing as a teaching artist at a school is directly related to the importance placed on the arts (particularly the art form that you represent) at that school.

Last fall I had the opportunity to teach dance in an enthusiastic and receptive school community at New Highland Academy in East Oakland. Luna Kids Dance has partnered with New Highland for the past three years, and has a special relationship with this school, primarily because of the principal’s interest in fostering dance learning. Liz Ozol, a former dancer, was strategizing about the dance program before even starting her work as principal! Being in my second year teaching at New Highland, I’ve witnessed the dance program’s continued success, which due in large part to the administrative support.

One of the most satisfying things about working in a school, besides working with the children, is developing relationships with classroom teachers. Classroom teachers don’t normally see their students move all that much, aside from “unruly” movement like a push to get in line, an unnecessary walk to sharpen a pencil, or an impulsive attempt to squish in between two other children. By watching their students dance, teachers have a chance to see them through a different lens. Teachers often report seeing shifts in certain children, especially increased confidence, body awareness, and body control.

This year I’ve especially enjoyed working with Kimm E Ward, a third grade classroom teacher and founding member and former dancer/performer with Project Bandaloop. Kimm E really understands the dance content and how dance learning applies to and affects the learning in her classroom. This year Kimm E and I focused on documenting her students’ dance learning by having the children keep dance journals. Immediately following dance class, Kimm E has students write responses to a reflection question that relates to that class. For example, last week they learned about different kinds of jumps, such as assemblé (pushing off from one foot and landing on two feet), leaping (pushing off of one foot and landing on the other), and sissones (pushing off of two feet and landing on one). After class, Kimm E asked them to write in response to the following prompt: “Describe your favorite way of jumping from class today. Specify how many feet you used to push off with and how many feet you used to land.”

When I read their early dance journal entries, I admit I was disappointed. With our focus on documentation, I expected them to reveal all of the dance concepts they had learned. I also thought there would be a more direct correlation between what they learned in their bodies and their ability to describe their learning. Yet in their first few entries, there were more comments like “Dance class is fun!” and “I love to dance” than observations about the content they had learned. Then I realized that their writing skills were still developing; they were still learning how to compose paragraphs, and several could barely write complete sentences. They were still learning how to describe the dance they see in class—just as they are still learning how to dance with partners safely and still learning how to create their own movement phrases.

In just six weeks, the students’ dance vocabulary has increased tremendously as a result of the dance learning and the writing reflections. They continue to learn and use new dance language to describe what they see their peers doing in class. As they practice responding to peers verbally and in writing, their responses have become more detailed and specific. Their ability to see and describe movement has already expanded. I have also noticed that the writing has developed their ability to retain and understand dance concepts.

I feel lucky to have had the chance to teach at New Highland as part of such a fantastic school community—a supportive principal, committed classroom teachers, and exuberant children who are learning how much they love to dance. Artists should be a part of school communities; I hope that all teaching artists get to experience being a part of a school in this way.

This article appeared in the March 2009 issue of In Dance.

Sarah Sass has been honing her teaching skills as a dance teaching artist for six years and working for Luna Kids Dance for the past five years. She creates her own choreographic work and directs peck peck dance ensemble in collaboration with Sean McMahon. peck peck dance ensemble shows new work May 8-9, 2009 at CounterPULSE in San Francisco.