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Raising The Barre: Lessons Learned From My Daughter's Dance School


When you work in education you sometimes take your work home with you (OK, always). Think of the many memes that joke about teachers accidentally using their “teacher voice” with their significant others, or randomly pushing in chairs when visiting restaurants and other non-classroom environments. It can't be helped. Just as medical professionals are constantly assessing the safety of a particular situation, and contractors visit people’s homes with an expert’s eye on the crown molding and window frames, those of us who work in and with schools approach life through the lens of an educator, and we are always wondering what we could take back with us. A few weeks ago I went to see my daughter's recital at Lydia Johnson Dance School and it got me thinking, “all schools could learn from this!”

The Creative Approach: In traditional schools, we often see units of study that last for four weeks, with the creativity piece capping it off at the end. Think of the “learn-about-Native-Americans-and-make-a-diorama-at-the-end” project. Ideally, creative, hands-on learning happens throughout, which is exactly how this choreography-based dance school works. They call it, “The Creative Approach,” and whether kids are enrolled for a semester or for a weeklong intensive during the summer, the approach is the same. Rather than drilling for weeks, months and years before having the opportunity to choreograph, students create as they go. When kids apply the skills they are learning, before having mastered them, they find joy and relevance and pride in the work they do, while building mastery along the way.

Culture of Feedback: After each performance, the kids sit on the edge of the stage and the instructors ask the observing students to offer feedback. "What did you notice?" they ask. Kids of all ages chime in with technical feedback, thoughts about how the music and dance made them feel, and with specific praise for aspects of the dance that were noteworthy. Feedback is warm, positive and specific to the art form. What’s amazing is that you could see that the feedback doesn’t just benefit those that receive it, but you could see that all the kids are being taught to observe dance with the language of dance at the forefront.

Seamless Infusion of Vocabulary: Not only are dance-specific terms (i.e. pirouette, pas de chat, etc.) seamlessly woven into all aspects of instruction and conversation, but high-leverage words (what educators call tier 2 words - the most important ones to focus on) like alignment and clarity are used to describe key concepts. It doesn't matter that some of the participants are six or seven years old, they are spoken to at a high level, with the expectation that they are capable of learning and applying. So often we talk down to kids - especially in the early grades - severely slowing them down, but at this school, the vocabulary of dance is everywhere, and kids frequently hear, use and apply the concepts they are learning about.

Benefits of Multi-Age: In most educational settings, there are not enough opportunities for young kids to mix with older ones. Some schools do this well, with great attention given to peer mentoring and buddy reading programs, but scheduling and other obstacles often limit the frequency and quality of these interactions. At this dance school, kids are frequently placed into mixed age groups. These mixed groups allow the dancers to maximize their differences on behalf of their creative effort. For instance, the size differential allows for lifts and movements that wouldn't normally be possible. Many young kids get stretched to perform longer and more nuanced routines, and many older ones gain confidence choreographing for a mixed group of dancers. What develops is a culture of mutual respect for size, body-type, age and ability, and a community of support and encouragement.

Exposure to Experts: Another feature at this school is the frequent exposure to professional dancers. Just as each group of younger kids looks up to, learns from and emulates the dancers a couple years older than them, all of the kids have the opportunity to learn from and dance with professional dancers, as many of the instructors in the school are part of the professional dance company affiliated with the school. What happens with this frequent exposure is that all kids begin to identify as dancers and to see themselves as part of the same community as these professionals. It's hard to quantify or even describe the impact this has on kids, but when you see forty kids - a mixed group of boys and girls and all ages - listening to and talking the language of dance with professional dancers, you further appreciate the value of having content experts leading instruction and students engaged in the core work of their discipline. Just a great reminder of how important it is for instructors to have expertise in their craft.

Knowledge-based Leadership: Finally, none of this would happen without the leadership of the school's founder and director, Lydia Johnson. Lydia is a true master teacher in that she does not only weave brilliant instructional insight into everything she does, but she makes all the people around her better and smarter. The dance teachers she hires and trains become stronger through her mentorship, as do the teenage assistants who each take on the responsibility of guiding a group of young dancers. Such a great reminder that philosophy, tone, culture, and quality are led from the top, and that the impact of a master-teacher-as-leader is boundless.

I wanted to share these nuggets with my fellow educators as we embark on a new school year, and to wish you all a terrific school year ahead. This year I hope we all find inspiration and keep learning in unexpected places!


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