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Building a Dance Community, One Step at a Time

As the only dance teacher at my school, Success Academy Harlem East, sometimes I feel a little isolated. While math teachers commiserate over tricky proofs and English teachers share compelling new books to read, a communal passion for dance isn’t always a given — which means that building a strong dance community requires a uniquely concerted effort from both teachers and scholars.

That’s why over Thanksgiving break, I was so excited to help run Success Academy’s first-ever network-wide dance conference at SA Harlem Central. The conference brought together 21 Success Academy dance teachers, along with 45 of their most dedicated middle and high school students for a day of intense dance study — and a glimpse at what a professional dance career might look like.

The rigorous, four-hour workshop included warm-up sessions, classes, and a career development seminar. During those four hours, we laid the foundation for a new community within Success: passionate dancers.

But building a network-wide dance community isn’t easy, and at first, scholars grouped together with friends from their school. After some warm-ups though, our dancers went into the first of three sessions, grouped not by school, but by dance genre. One training focused on contemporary dance, another on hip-hop, and the third on step. In each session, all 45 dancers learned a combination and then split into smaller groups to watch their peers perform the choreography.

The diverse trainings were key to the event for two reasons. First, young dancers must have a background in a range of techniques and be able to adapt to the stylistic differences of each teacher. But second, experimenting with different classes can be prohibitively expensive for our scholars. The more we can expose them to a variety of genres and other talented dancers, the more they will develop their understanding of dance.

As scholars began practicing new techniques, I saw student dancers from different schools working to improve together. In several cases, particularly strong dancers offered tips to scholars struggling with a new combination. In one class, students started to appreciate that facial expressions make a huge difference (always smile!) for veteran and novice dancers alike — it’s the little things that can sometimes bridge the larger gaps.

Taysia Farrell, a sophomore at Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts, also noticed the power of camaraderie. “I really enjoyed being around other people who have the same passion for dance as I do,” she told me. “It was just so comfortable feeling like part of the group. No one is judging you —  we’re all here to learn new things.”

“It was just so comfortable feeling like part of the group. No one is judging you —  we’re all here to learn new things.”

Others, like SA Harlem East 8th grader Milani Hudson, felt the technical elements of the conference were particularly impactful.

“At the conference, I learned the difference between being a mover and a dancer,” Milani said. “You can teach anyone an 8-count and they can do the steps. That’s a mover. But a dancer is someone who learns an 8-count, showcases it with charisma, and even adds their own little twist to add their personality to the piece. In dance you’re not just moving to music, you have to feel the music.”

After the training sessions, two SA dance teachers led a career development seminar. They offered scholars practical advice — explaining the importance of resumes, taking dance classes in all genres, getting professional headshots, and presenting themselves professionally during auditions.  My colleagues and I painted a realistic picture of dance as a hugely rewarding but challenging career path. We want to do everything we can to help our scholar’s achieve their dreams.

With Success Academy’s first major dance conference complete, we’re already planning our next seminar for the spring, which will hopefully include new dance classes and an expanded career development session that features a resume-writing workshop, mock auditions, and a photographer to take headshots. This one, meanwhile, was an inspiring reminder of what is possible within our community when we dedicate time to it.

Written by Elisabeth Gosselin December 14, 2016

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