Dance Educators: On a Road to Create Change

By Patricia Reedy

January 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Fifteen years ago, I found myself listening deeply to the stories my friends told about trying to teach dance in schools. Consider the experiences of two typical educators:

Josh, a dance teaching artist, felt that his work was unacknowledged and unappreciated. He was expected to teach dance to 40 students in a dark, dirty multipurpose room. The students ranged widely in maturity level and experience and, as is typical of all California public schools, included mainstreamed students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) who needed attention to their special needs. Flexible as most dancers are, Josh did his best, trying to engage students with fun dance exercises, contemporary music and his outgoing and generous personality. During classes, his classroom teacher partner, who was ambivalent about carving out time from her overloaded curriculum and test preparation in the first place, sat in the back of the room grading papers and working on a laptop. Occasionally a skirmish would occur and the classroom teacher would pull the offending students out of class for a time-out, leaving Josh temporarily alone with the remaining 38 students. One day, Josh arrived ready to teach, only to find the multipurpose room filled with tables and boxes of books for a Scholastic book fair. Another day, he called me from the school parking lot, in tears because he had driven 40 minutes in the pouring rain to get to dance class, only to find that neither teacher nor school administrator had bothered to inform him the class would be canceled for a school-wide field trip.

A teacher leading a dance class in an elementary school classroom/
Photo by Verna Benz

Unfortunately, Josh’s experience was not an exception. Dance teaching artists confront a widespread lack of respect. Perhaps they should not take things so personally, but consider where dance teaching artists have been forced to teach: in cafeterias where the janitor refuses to put up the tables, in classrooms where teachers refuse to move desks, on the playground while others are having recess or P.E. class, in hallways, in stairwells. One dance teacher was even forced to temporarily set up dance class in the bathroom!

During that same period of time, some of my classroom teacher colleagues saw the value of dance in a holistic, child centered curriculum, but complained about the dance teaching artists’ lack of knowledge about school culture and child development; most often, they felt artists lacked what they called “classroom management” skills.

Consider classroom teacher Shari, who had studied the California Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) standards and frameworks and was excited to support the multiple intelligences of her students through the art of dance. Even though Shari was under pressure to raise her students’ test scores, she had read the research about movement being good for the brain and saw transferable skills in the Create, Perform, Respond framework. Shari spent her personal time completing the district paperwork necessary to apply for her school to receive a dance “residency” from a local provider, and she assured the principal that her students’ “time on task” would not suffer.

Shari was surprised to find that the dance teaching artist did not teach to the standards and had a difficult time engaging the class. The material taught was not grade or age appropriate and seemed to consist mainly of students following the teacher’s movements. Several of Shari’s students did very well; they loved dance class and “got” the complicated steps of the routine. But Shari couldn’t help but be disappointed, as these students were also her above-average readers and tested well on math. She had hoped that dance would be a better equalizer, improving the confidence of the kinesthetic, musical and spatial learners.

Over the course of two years, Shari’s students had four different resident dance teaching artists. Although none of them taught standards-based dance, some had success with students because of an engaging personality or skillful sharing of a traditional or cultural dance form. But the inconsistent quality and content of the curriculum led Shari to wonder about the choice to spend so much time in dance. The VAPA standards had led Shari to believe that dance would focus on the body, moving in space; that her students would be learning about energy and time; and that she would partner with the dance teacher to connect dance to other classroom learning. After two years, Shari switched to drama for her students.

At the root of both of these limited perspectives we found (1) the general public’s lack of understanding of dance, (2) the relentless pressure on classroom teachers to meet the mandates of No Child Left Behind and teaching to the test, and (3) the dramatic cuts in California public school funding since the late 1970s. These have gradually turned our public school classrooms into dreary facilities in which highly stressed, overworked educators teach students from increasingly high poverty, high-violence neighborhoods—including students with a host of special needs related to health, nutrition, autism, immigration and disability.

In response to this dysfunctional situation, Luna Dance Institute created our first Summer Institute (SI) in 2000. We brought together dance teaching artists and classroom teachers in a six-day intensive for the purpose of understanding each other’s perspective, improving dance teaching, and working in alliance to shift the culture of dance and the culture of schools for California’s children. We were inspired by the philosophy of Susan Stinson, who wrote, “All educators, including dance educators, must prepare students to imagine and create new worlds; to do this, educators must be able to create new worlds within schools” (Design for Arts in Education, 1991). With SI’s lofty goals of co-creating agency and social change, a syllabus rooted in Critical Pedagogy made the most sense. And to demonstrate respect and dignity to these under-appreciated professionals, Luna fundraises extensively so that no fee is charged to the individuals selected, nutritious food is provided throughout the week, and compassionate, individualized coaching is offered throughout the follow-up year. At times, when full funding is achieved, participants have even received a stipend for their time or a contribution to offset travel costs for out-of-town visitors attending the midyear reunion meeting.

With SI now in its 14th year, the syllabus has shifted slightly because the field has noticeably changed. Participants come with less frustration, anger and blame. Instead, they bring focused questions and leave feeling connected, energized and strong. We’re also accepting educators beyond public schools: studio dance teachers, community artists and practitioners and therapists. More than 150 dance educators have attended our SIs, and although not all remain in the field, several have actually become leaders in dance education. They have launched or expanded programs in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Australia. They advocate for dance programs in their rural and urban school districts, knowing that a strong dance program needs to extend beyond the typical ten-week residency. They understand that space (as well as the body and rhythm) is an element of dance that needs to be allocated, safe and clean. And they grasp that children are playing with energy when they dance and that this may look chaotic to the public school personnel who prefer children in straight lines. Dance teaching artists become more confident as they learn to identify what they value in dance and find ways to weave their values into dance curricula that meet state and national standards and are engaging, creative, fun and rigorous. Most important, dance teaching artists and classroom teachers find that they are allies on behalf of children and build relationships that increase everyone’s sense of agency.

At the annual conferences of the National Dance Education Organization, professionals meet in special interest groups (SIGs) to discuss issues of relevance in their particular group of dance educators. SIGs include K–12, early childhood, higher education, studio, professional dance companies and more. In Miami this past October, I sat in on the Teaching Artist SIG meeting, wanting to know more about what dance teaching artists need now so that I can keep our SI syllabus relevant. I came prepared to discuss the potential labor issue ramifications of teaching artists and credentialed teachers. Instead, I found myself back in 1998, as dance teaching artist after dance teaching artist stated some of the very same complaints I heard more than a decade ago: no respect, no space, no communication, the perils of teaching during prep time, 20-minute dance classes, the need to accommodate the wide range of abilities in the class with no training or support, no professional development and pressures to put on a show with only a seven- or ten-week residency. Our SI veterans have moved the field forward and are asking much deeper questions, but there is still such a long way to go.

Luna’s 14th Summer Institute will be held July 17–25, 2014. Applications will be available February 3, 2014 here. For more information, contact arasera@lunadanceinstitute.org.


Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.

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