Teach-Learn Connection

May 19, 2010



Beyond the Books

Three approaches to bringing dance into the public schools

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.”


Diversity First
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.


Pictured: Team XXL of Richmond Ballet’s Minds In Motion program at their year-end performance in 2005. Photo copyright Richmond Ballet.



Break Your Bad Habits: The Hips

By Lauren Kay

In dance forms from salsa to ballet, the hips facilitate clean technique and nuanced self-expression. “Your hips can convey sensuality, a stylized feel, and even humor,” says Katiti King, a Simonson jazz teacher at Dance New Amsterdam in New York City. “Anatomically, they’re a part of your center, which is where you move from. And they create the rotation in your legs.” But through forced turnout or extension, the hips can also become a source of injury and pain. DM spoke with King; Joanne Smith, physical therapist, formerly of New York’s Westside Dance Physical Therapy; and New York–based ballet teacher Lisa Lockwood about how to drop harmful habits in favor of healthier hips.

Habit: Overusing the big muscles
Smith notes that when lifting the leg into passé or arabesque, dancers often use the superficial quadriceps muscles around the hip, instead of deeper muscles like the iliacus and psoas. This leads to weakness in internal muscles that can, if activated properly, lift the leg more efficiently.

Break it:
Smith recommends slow, steady work outside the studio, without the pressure of class. To strengthen what she calls the “ladder” of horizontally stacked muscles covering the back of the hip joint (including the obturators, gemelli, and quadratus femoris), try this exercise: Lie on your side, legs stacked on top of each other, knees bent at a right angle. Engage the abdominals gently and, keeping the feet together, lift the top knee up. “Try to move your hip and top knee without moving anything else or engaging your quad,” Smith says. Repeat slowly and precisely on each side until fatigued. On the car or subway ride to class, try this one: “Sit with knees slightly apart, lower legs rotated with feet in first position on the floor,” Smith says. “Push the heels in toward each other. Try to feel that the deep muscles just outside the sitting bones are working, without clenching the bottom. Hold 10 seconds; repeat 10 times.”


Hiking the hip When lifting the working leg, many dancers pop the hip out, forcing their extension beyond its natural limit. “Often dancers are taught not to work in their natural rotation but at 180 degrees,” King says, “and they end up activating the quads to achieve that. That muscle memory becomes hard to avoid, and the large muscles automatically contract in passé or développé.”

Break it:
“The challenge for me as a teacher,” King says, “is to get a dancer to understand that it’s OK to give up the aesthetic of 180-degree turnout. Then you can create more stretch and strength from real rotation.” To find your true rotation, she suggests standing in parallel, placing your hands under your glutes so you can feel them, and turning out your legs without gripping the larger glutes. Work from that V-line, rather than 180 degrees.


Lockwood also recommends a shift in perspective. “When moving into passé or développé, it’s not about forcing your hips to be level,” she says. “Get up on your standing leg as much as possible, then let the working leg hip settle down. When you push down too much you sit in the standing leg, and if you pull up on the working leg you have an angle there that’s not useful. So think of resting, not resisting. Let gravity do the work.”   

Smith offers the following exercise for using internal muscles, like the iliacus and psoas, to flex the hip on a stable pelvis. “Lie on your back, letting the superficial muscles relax with gravity,” she says. “Put your right leg on top of the left in fifth position, and put your hand on the right front of the pelvis just outside the bony bit. Draw your top leg into passé without letting where your hand is get hard. Keep it soft, using the deeper muscles instead.”

Sinking into the hip Whether slumping into one hip while waiting in a rehearsal, or sitting into it to hoist up the working leg, this habit, like hiking the hip, can lead to strained ligaments and tendons around the hip joint. Lockwood believes this tendency arises when teachers put more emphasis on a high working leg than on a properly placed standing leg. King points out that it also has to do with the body’s natural asymmetry. For instance, if a dancer has one slightly longer leg, she may habitually sink into the hip of the shorter leg.

Break it:
“The muscle that helps you not to sit while you shift your weight onto the standing leg is the gluteus medius,” Smith explains. “It’s located where the top, outside corner of a back jean pocket would be.” From that starting point, it runs diagonally down to the greater trochanter, the bony protrusion at the top outside of the femur. To find and activate this muscle, Smith suggests doing low tendus or développés while focusing your energy on that area and relaxing the quadriceps and gluteus maximus. King adds that working on the Pilates Reformer can heighten your awareness of any imbalance in leg length, which you can then apply to your dancing.



Lauren Kay is a contributing editor at
Dance Spirit Magazine.



Across the Floor: The Brianskys’ New Home

Oleg Briansky and Mireille Briane, the husband-and-wife team at the helm of the Briansky Ballet Center, are no strangers to change. “We’ve been all over the world, living in different countries. We’re used to moving around,” said Briane during a phone interview in February (although with Briansky on the same line, and the two of them completing each other’s sentences, it was hard to tell just who was talking).


In this spirit, the couple sees their next move as “a new adventure,” said Briansky, rather than a daunting transition. After 43 years at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, their summer ballet academy is relocating to Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts. On June 27, the bucolic campus, with its state-of-the-art studios in the Kendall Sports and Dance Complex, will welcome BBC’s 100 students, ages 11 to 18, for four weeks.


Briansky and Briane, who married in 1953 while dancing for Les Ballets des Champs Elysées, founded the Briansky Saratoga Ballet Center in 1965, on the tail end of their international performing careers. Beloved as they were as performers, it’s their keen, compassionate teaching that has earned them a hallowed place in the ballet world. On the occasion of their school’s 40th anniversary, Natalia Makarova wrote to them, “You have a profound understanding of our art form, which I think is a guiding light for these young dancers.”


In 2006, the couple learned that 2008 would be their last year at Skidmore (according to Briansky, the college needed space for other summer programs), launching a search for new headquarters  that landed them at the scenic Mt. Holyoke. “There is a beautiful lake and waterfall—ah, but my husband says he already told you that,” Briane remarked, Briansky chiming in from the background. The school also appealed to them for the proximity between its studios,  theater, and dorms, which they hope will foster a tight-knit community, “sort of like a large family,” Briansky said.


While the Center’s location has changed, its detail-oriented curriculum—which emphasizes clean, crisp fundamentals—hasn’t. “We pay particular attention to basic placement,” Briansky said. “And we give our students self-confidence, so that they learn to be assured and aware, not to dance flimsy.”


“The child developing—this is what my husband and I like to see,” said Briane. “Sometimes they are lost; they don’t know where they are dancing. We have to show them the beauty of dance.” —Siobhan Burke