By Jen Peters
A dance performance, by nature, is outreach. Dancers express themselves for a community of viewers, not alone. But many companies go beyond concert outreach and transport their love of dance into public school classrooms. Just by moving their bodies, students discover a type of learning that isn’t found in a book or on a marker board. Jennifer Muller/The Works in New York City, ODC in San Francisco, and Richmond Ballet in Virginia are among the many companies that have developed varied outreach approaches with a common goal: to inspire creativity in students and strengthen ties between companies and their surrounding communities.
Imaginative Teaching Over the last 18 years, NYC-based modern company JM/TW has offered free arts awareness programs for public school children throughout the five boroughs. One program, Faces of Wonder, was designed to validate creative career paths for kids who may not have exposure to the arts at home or in school. “We perform excerpts from pieces, talk about what it takes to be a dancer, and inspire the kids to find something they are passionate about,” explains Muller. The company’s cross-cultural makeup shows a diverse group of people working together, which resonates with students. One fourth-grader at P.S. 42 in Manhattan wrote in response, “You all come from many different places, but dance like you come from one.”
Muller created a separate classroom program, Imagine That!, nine years ago as a learning-by-moving experience for children in kindergarten through sixth grades. She hopes that through gestural and nonverbal communication, kids can acquire new ways of perceiving the world, expressing themselves, and understanding each other. “Too often children are taught by rote memorization, even in dance class,” she says. “Here, everything comes out of their personal experiences and decisions.”
Led by company dancers, students identify the emotions conveyed by different postures—for example, understanding that slouching communicates disengagement, while sitting tall shows energetic involvement. Building upon physical gestures, the class learns about spatial relationships with other people. Teams of students choreograph and perform specific situations, developing silent scenes often based on real-life experiences. One group of third-graders from the Bronx Charter School created a lunch-room scene focusing on a student who was alone, unable to find friends to sit with until another student brought her into the group.
Art teacher Helen Gurny at P.S. 59 in the Bronx brought the Faces of Wonder program to her school (which has never had a dance teacher due to budget constraints). “The performance seemed sophisticated for first- through third-graders,” she remarks, “but the students’ drawings and written responses showed an amazing understanding and connection to the dancing.”
In California, contemporary company ODC has built a reputation for spreading dance throughout San Francisco. “The state of California public schools is currently desperate. Arts programs are being cut; there is no dance and hardly any P.E. classes left,” explains Annie Jupiter-Jones, coordinator of ODC’s Making Moves program, which works with over 250 students each year. The initiative (one of several ODC outreach efforts) aims to foster a love of dance for less-privileged youth, although it is also available to adult organizations.
Each school chooses the dance style that ODC will teach, selecting from hip hop (the most popular), creative movement, contemporary/modern, Afro-Brazilian, salsa, flamenco, bhangra, and many more. Although teachers—all instructors from the ODC school—work on technique, their primary focus is to encourage discipline and provide an outlet for self-expression.
ODC teachers come from a range of cultural backgrounds and are all shapes and sizes. “Many of our instructors defy the typical dancer image, so students see that any body type can dance,” Jupiter-Jones says. “Some kids are born dancers and naturally want to move, but we have to break down self-conscious barriers.”
To Richmond, and Beyond! Ballet is often stereotyped as an “elitist” art, so ballet companies today strive for new ways to branch out and impact communities. In its 15th year, Richmond Ballet’s Minds In Motion has been one such successful effort. Modeled after Jacques D’Amboise’s National Dance Institute, MIM is part of the Virginia public schools’ year-round curriculum, reaching 20 elementary schools and 1,500 fourth-graders each week in the Richmond metropolitan area, with satellite programs in Charlottesville, Martinsville, and Roanoke. Program director and former Richmond Ballet dancer Brett Bonda taught a residency in Emek Hefer, Israel, and is training teachers there to continue MIM overseas.
“If you demand excellence from children, you will see it,” Bonda says. “We teach in a way that is fun but demanding. They don’t realize how hard they’re working.” Each 45-minute class introduces students to dance through a series of basic nontechnical moves which builds each week. Instructors hope to dispel myths that dance is just for girls. “One parent told me her son started dancing in a Wal-Mart aisle to a song used in class!” exclaims Bonda.
After fourth grade, MIM kids can audition for Team XL and Team XXL, groups that meet after school to work toward year-round performances and deepen their connection to dance. “Before MIM I never thought I’d want to pursue a dance career,” says eighth-grader Peter Farrow, a Team XXL member, “but now my goal is to graduate from Juilliard.” Students often perform in Richmond Ballet’s Nutcracker, and last year the Clara and Fritz roles were danced by MIM graduates.
MIM concludes the year with two days of performance incorporating all 20 schools. Each year an academic theme is integrated into the program; this year students learned about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the importance of saving the bay. Each class performed dances about an environmental issue, like using less electricity (set to “The Electric Slide”). The concerts attract more than 10,000 viewers each year, and through them, Richmond Ballet’s audiences have expanded and diversified, says Bonda. “It’s so exciting. We never thought the program would grow this much.”
Jen Peters dances with Jennifer Muller/The Works and is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.