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The Academics of Dance

Dance education has more than just physical benefits
Dance instructor Patricia Plasko (center) leads students, from left, Alissa Rose, Taylor Sayers, Aitana Carrascosa Roldan and Ashley Randall in class.

Dancing can improve writing.

At least that’s been the experience of Debra Norton, who provides dance education as the artist in residence at Kalamazoo Public Schools’ Woods Lake Elementary, a Magnet Center for the Arts.

Norton, along with the school’s fourth-grade teachers and writing coach Peg Luidens, taught narrative writing to fourth-graders by incorporating dance into their teaching. Kids were shown photographs of athletes and asked to develop a narrative related to the photo.

The students “had to start to recreate what was in the photograph, and then they had to start to imagine, if they were actually that athlete: What would their story be? What would their narrative be?” Norton says. The students developed storylines with a beginning, middle, climax and end and then developed a series of movements that corresponded to the story and had a logical order.

“The dance was directly connected to their writing. Two years ago was the first time we did it, and their MEAP scores in writing went through the roof,” Norton says, referring to the 20-point increase in fourth grade writing proficiency scores experienced from the 2011-12 to 2012-13 school years.

In an era when schools and parents are focused on academic achievement, dance education may seem like a nice-to-have choice rather than a have-to-have subject. But, from an elementary school where dance is as much a part of the routine as reading and math to a yearlong daily high school class open to students across the county, dance education has benefits beyond the physical, educators say. And professional teaching artists are doing their utmost to get kids to move, be creative and improve their learning in academic subjects.

Dance education is more multi-faceted than studio-based dance lessons, exposing kids to many traditions and styles and adding extra dimensions of learning on top of technical skills, educators say.

“I try to expose them to a really broad range of dance, so dance is not just what you see on TV or in a music video, but there is depth and breadth to what is out there,” Norton says.

In simple choreography lessons, Norton provides a basic framework and asks kids to choose movements to fill in the dance. In this way, the students learn about decision-making. “When you’re the choreographer, you get to create how to do (the dance),” Norton says.

All Woods Lake students attend dance class once a week, and fourth- and fifth-graders have the option of joining the school’s performing dance companies. “Dancing is part of our school day. It’s just what we do,” Norton says.

Although Woods Lake is unique in that respect (a similar program at KPS’s Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts ended in 2010), it isn’t the only local educational entity that embraces dance. The Education for the Arts (EFA) program offered by the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency is another rich source of dance and other arts experiences for Kalamazoo County students.

In EFA’s Aesthetic Education program, teaching artists and classroom teachers collaborate to give K-8 students an immersive experience with a work of art, such as a live performance.

Norton, who teaches dance at Western Michigan University and Ballet Arts Studio, is also a teaching artist and a teacher trainer for EFA’s Aesthetic Education. She says the program’s approach affords students a more powerful connection to the art. Rather than lecturing about what the students are going to see ahead of time, educators plan lessons around the choreography of the work to be performed. “We (lead students) through activities where they have to make decisions as a choreographer would,” she says. “Once the students see the performance, their reaction is typically, ‘Oh! I’ve done something like that!’”

High school students can receive a much more in-depth dance education through yearlong classes in the visual and performing arts in EFA’s Excellence in Arts program. The program exposes students to disciplines not covered in their school’s regular curriculum. Classes are taught at various locations around the area by working artists and are open to public, private and home-schooled students.

Patricia Plasko, a professional dancer and founding member of the local Wellspring dance company as well as a choreographer and costume designer, joined Excellence in Arts in 1998 as a dance educator. Under her direction, the program has grown from one to three dance educators and from two to nine classes, ranging from beginning to advanced levels.

Although some EFA students have had prior dance experience, participants in Excellence in Arts are “mostly kids who have not had dance and most likely would never have had the opportunity,” Plasko says.

EFA programs “enable the student to become the artist. They learn the skills so that they have the tools to do the art,” she says. In addition to learning techniques of ballet, modern dance and jazz, students learn choreography and have opportunities to perform in WMU’s Shaw Theatre and other venues.

This year Plasko is teaching a new nontraditional performance-based class called “DancEXperiment Lab.” Students create works for non-theater settings such as public spaces. Their projects include collaborations with other EFA classes and arts organizations as well as independent “surprise movement” performances (think flash mobs).

Dance education benefits students in many ways, from improving their physical fitness to developing their self-confidence and social skills to actually helping them learn other subjects, educators say.

In addition to teaching dance for its own sake, Woods Lake integrates it into the academic curriculum. “Arts integration is where we take a classroom subject such as math or science or language arts … and we infuse dance into the learning process. So each subject has an equal voice in the process. We actually use dance (and other art forms) to teach writing. We use dance to teach science,” Norton says.

Remember those improved MEAP scores Woods Lake experienced? The improvement is the result of something called kinesthetic learning, Plasko says. “When you experience something physical in your body, it stays there because it’s not just an idea in your head. You actually had a physical experience, and that is coded in your muscles.”

Kids also learn practical life skills through dance, Norton says. “There are so many things I think that it connects to. They might not realize it at the time, but through dance education you learn so much just about being in society. You have to learn how to get along with other people to make a dance work. If you’re doing a partner dance, you’re not going to be dancing with your best friend all the time. You have to learn how to get along with everybody.”

Plasko believes the opportunity to perform helps kids appreciate the value of responsibility. She says that after their first show, beginning dance students “totally get what the whole thing is about, why you work so hard every day, why you repeat things so many times. It’s really exciting to see students take that on and then really own the work.”

Dance also “teaches kids to be comfortable in their own skin,” Norton says. For example, “someday when you go to an interview (you will be able) to sit in front of somebody and look them in the eye and talk to them and (understand) your body language.”

Danna Ephland, a former teaching artist with EFA and a writing teacher who has taught workshops integrating movement and writing to all ages, says that for some students dance class may be the first place where they do not “see themselves as a failure in school, because suddenly there’s this thing that they not only succeed at but they’re one of the best at.”

“It’s just this whole new way of seeing themselves,” Ephland says.

Diana Hart Johnson, a former soloist with the renowned Martha Graham Dance Company, led the middle school dance program at Maple Street. “Dance engages people, and that is just as important, maybe more, as any scientifically proven link to the enhancement of academic subjects,” Johnson says. “Dancing speaks to something very basic in people that must be spoken to, and perhaps some kids stay in school just so they can experience that each week.”

Dance educators continue to look for new ways to broaden students’ exposure to the world of dance, such as Plasko’s DancEXperiment Lab. Norton is adding tap dance to Woods Lake’s repertoire this year with funds that came to the school when her program won the Greg Jennings Foundation’s Be Great School Challenge last year.

Johnson, who now teaches Spanish at Kalamazoo Central High School, has been impressed with the number of dance and other arts programs in Kalamazoo Public Schools during her 13 years teaching in the district. “That is rare,” she says, “and should be touted, not taken for granted.”

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Kinesthetic Learning

Remember those improved MEAP scores Woods Lake experienced? The improvement is the result of something called kinesthetic learning.

“When you experience something physical in your body, it stays there because it’s not just an idea in your head. You actually had a physical experience, and that is coded in your muscles.”
--Patricia Plasko