Putting the “Unity” in Classroom Community

Before I worked with Dancing With Class, I used to study and teach classes on community-based performance. One thing that kept coming up was the connection between the personal empowerment that comes from mastering a performance skill– something that you create in your own body and others can’t take away– and the feeling of togetherness that comes from creating a performance with others. This is something that is similar to what happens in team sports: individuals learn to take pride in developing new skills while learning that for their team to succeed overall they must work together. In our program the skills are different, but the concept is the same. And unlike most team sports our students take part in at their ages, the teams are completely co-ed. This is something I see happen in my classrooms again and again.

Personal Empowerment: So often we see the pride and joy our students develop when they master a new step, or when they get recognition for a dance well done. I recently had the chance to work with a full classroom of students to create a fully choreographed dance piece for performance. At one point I wanted the gentlemen to enter in a formation, but they were struggling with spacing. One of the boys in the class suggested they enter offset “like a checkerboard,” and we re-imagined that section to make that suggestion work. I was thrilled to see one of my students take a leadership role in the dance, and it looked great in the final routine! Particularly for students who may struggle in other subjects, or who face more challenges than their peers in other areas, these moments of recognition can be particularly motivating.  

Community Bonding: I so appreciate our placing partner dance at the center of a creative endeavor. One of my students once said that “ballroom dancing is different from hip hop because… in ballroom dance you have to get along with the other person.” This isn’t to take anything away from hip hop or ballet or jazz or any other form of dance, but to signify what is different about partnered dance. Our goal is never to outshine our partner. We have to work together for us to succeed. The dancers learn that have to trust and rely on their partners, and also that their partners rely on them. I think that can be scary and difficult for adults, let alone for 10-year-olds. In this same dance piece, there was a moment where some of the students participated in a simple, safe lift. The dancers who were lifted learned that the moment they trusted their partners to carry them the lift was completely secure and comfortable, but if they avoided giving their partners their full weight, then they wouldn’t get more than a few inches off the ground. So much of the staging of the piece, too, involved moments when a group of ladies would have to move across the stage in time for their partners to start the next piece, and vice versa. We discussed how when each person knew when they were supposed to move and when they had to trust and wait for their partner, the entire piece looked cleaner.

These realizations are twinned: I can; We can. Both are very important lessons. In a culture of American individualism, individual scores and grading, and growing isolation of kids and teens through “social” networks, I think Dancing With Class can capitalize on our ability to bring students together. To my other teachers and collaborators: do you have particular strategies, anecdotes, or ideas of how we can do this to an even greater extent?

— Contributed by Chris Van Houten