Monday, August 6, 2012

the relative scarcity of dance programs

Well, I'm a bit reluctant to take on an issue that sounds like complaining, but it has been on my mind a lot lately (especially after having spent much time over the past year looking for schools in my area which might need an experienced dance teacher)...

I am old enough to have grown up in the "golden age" of education in California (the 60s and 70s, pre-Prop 13), but in those days even my large (2400 students) high school had virtually nothing in the way of a dance program -- we had a one-semester PE elective, taught by a PE teacher obviously never trained in dance of any kind, who left us alone to group ourselves and make up dances for the whole semester.

In those days there were no state Frameworks or Content Standards specifying arts as core subjects or mandating access to education in all four major arts disciplines (dance, drama, music, visual art), as we have now -- yet it is discouraging to see, in many ways, how little has changed. I know, in these times of high-stakes testing and focus on ELA and math scores, that all the arts are struggling for space in the curriculum; yet when the subject of arts in schools comes up in general public discourse or in the local papers, it is so often framed as "art and music" classes. And while there are, of course, many schools both large and small with excellent dance programs (very many I could name right in my area), there are equally many with huge, thriving programs in three arts disciplines, and no dance at all. As just an example, in one local (fairly well-off, suburban) school district encompassing three comprehensive high schools, there are no high school dance programs at all, although each school boasts at least 30 courses in the other three disciplines. And should one of those schools actually wish to start a dance program, it would find at least one large obstacle: the district list of approved courses, including 51 classes in Fine Arts, recognizes no dance courses at all! (except as a unit within Core PE or a one-semester PE elective -- exactly what I had all those decades ago...)

So... why is this? I suppose that part of the difficulty is the lack of a dance credential in California — it is much harder to be taken seriously as a subject with no teachers credentialed specifically for that subject. There is also that PE thing — once thought of as a physical activity within PE, it is hard to get out of that mold (I remember one principal telling me that "we don't have a dance program because none of our PE teachers knows how to teach dance")… although the PE connection is also one of our advantages, as students are often able to take dance courses for Performing Arts, PE, or elective credit — definitely a saving grace when most districts require only one year of arts credit. I also realize the logistical barriers to starting a dance program: while we do not have the ongoing materials budgets that, for instance, visual art programs require (as I have certainly found out this year), there is that big issue of space -- we dancers do tend to be a little (rightfully) picky about safe surfaces and adequate space, so dedicating a room can be a big up-front investment. BUT there are those content standards mandating access to four arts disciplines — and it still feels as if we are so often left out of the conversation...

One of my teachers in college, Chitresh Das, used to say that "I am not a dance teacher, but a dance preacher" — meaning, as I recall, that he feels his mission in life is to continually remind the world of the importance of dance. At times I have felt that that is how I ended up myself — a "dance preacher"  trying to convince the education world of the importance of dance in schools.

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