Dance Students Learn the Art of Teaching

Rachel Garcia '17 with EBSB StudentsThe Undergraduate Dance Program has been around for almost two decades. As part of the Performing Arts Department, dance majors take classes in techniques such as modern and ballet, dance science, dance history, and choreography and composition. Students also further their performance studies with music and theater courses through the Department. However, it wasn’t until this past school year that undergraduates were able to study dance pedagogy. Not only was a pedagogy class offered, but dance students actually had the chance to go out in the field and work with local middle-school and high-school students.

First offered in the spring of 2016, Dance Pedagogy was the brainchild of Director of Dance Cathy Davalos, and Dana Lawton, a full-time dance faculty member and current department chair. According to Lawton, “Cathy [Davalos] and I knew that many of our graduates, of the past 10 years or so, have gone on to teach. We wanted to support them in a pedagogical way.” Lawton also mentioned that offering a pedagogy class to the undergraduates could help our existing students and make them more marketable as dancers and teaching artists upon graduation.

Pedagogy is the method and practice of teaching. Graduate students in the MFA in Dance Program take a course in critical dance pedagogy, but until this past spring, there was no such offering for undergraduate dance students. While getting her MFA at Mills College, Lawton minored in pedagogy that also had courses in psychology and sociology. The minor focused on teaching children’s classes, adult dance classes, and even teaching dance to those with disabilities. Davalos and Lawton enlisted the help of Jill Randall, a recent graduate of the MFA in Dance Program and a dance educator in the Bay Area, to develop curriculum and find appropriate source material. Randall also taught three master classes on specific topics relating to middle school learners.

Lawton explained that the course was developed with a core set of basic skills she wanted students to develop regardless of if they were going to teach in private studios or in the public school system. Skills such as: 1) How to organize a dance class. 2) How to organize a syllabus. 3) How to work with a variety of student learning styles based on age and ability 4) How to understand and implement different methodologies in teaching.

“You learn a lot about yourself when you teach. In the first two weeks of class, we did a lot of self-reflection,” said Lawton. “I asked the students questions such as ‘How do you command respect?’ or ‘Why do you deserve respect?’” It is Lawton’s philosophy that “You ask your students to be open and vulnerable, so you as a teacher have to be so as well.”

Even though the course had a lecture component and assigned readings, it was highly interactive. Each week students explored different aspects of teaching dance. Students learned how to create phrases, how to create an exercise that addresses the concepts of direct and indirect movement, and how to teach rhythmically. “We spent an entire week on music. We practiced how to count the time signature of the music, how to work with and against rhythm, and identifying how tempo changes the feeling of the movement,” said Lawton. Other classes focused entirely on alignment for dance or on effective language. “I told the class ‘I’m going to do exactly what you tell me, regardless if I know better or not.’ Through that exercise the students had to understand how to communicate and problem-solve when they saw me doing something incorrectly;” said Lawton.

In addition to learning on campus, the course had a community outreach component that offered experiential dance pedagogy in the field. Students were divided into groups and went to two different East Bay schools. Some students went to Saint Mary’s College High School in Berkeley which was founded in association with the college in 1863, and is built on the same Lasallian principles. “Saint Mary’s High School has a vibrant dance program. I met with the new director, Dawn Paulson, who was really interested in having students come in to teach,” said Lawton.

During the spring semester, the high school dance students are given a choreographic project to work on. “The SMC students created a warm, safe, and positive environment that supported creativity for the high school students. It gave our students practice with mentorship,” said Lawton.

Katy Fessler ’16 said that “the students were incredible. When they were showing us their solos, they allowed us to ask them questions, and to give them feedback and guidance on where to go with their solos.” Besides offering choreographic guidance, the SMC students gave a technique-based warm-up and choreographic prompts. “A combination we gave them was evaluated for a mid-term grade,” said Fessler. “Everyone who took the class loved it. We had mostly juniors and seniors. There were a few guys in there, too, which surprised me. It was a really good group, they meshed together well.”

Other students headed over to the East Bay School for Boys (EBSB), a private, nonprofit middle school in Berkeley. Lawton worked with the school’s director, Jason Baeten, as well as the athletics director, Mike Calhoun. Lawton said that “One of the things we talk about, as a Lasallian institution, is our goal to work with underserved communities. One of those underserved communities is men in dance.” She goes on to explain, “Boys should know how to dance. They often participate in activities such as sports or karate, but dancing is something that is often limited for men. Our culture doesn’t dance the way other cultures do.”

“At first I admit, it was a bit frustrating trying to remember all of the things I am supposed to do and the things I should avoid doing … but it was great because I was able to learn from my mistakes,” said Curtis Askew ’16, one of the students who worked at EBSB. Askew, along with the other SMC students who headed over to EBSB, worked with Calhoun (aka Coach Mike). Askew and another classmate, Annamarie Santos ’16 assisted with choreographing the school’s musical with the sixth graders. “Coach Mike was putting on a musical for the school and it just so happened that both of my classes were the performers in the musical,” said Askew. With dealing with middle school class period (that are less than an hour each), Askew said it was fun, but hard to choreograph due to the time constraints. “Luckily I had a lot of help from my classmates and Coach Mike. It was a team effort,” Askew said.

Rachel Garcia ’17 worked with seventh graders and eighth graders. Both grades were given choreographic projects. “The boys had to make up their own dance to show at city hall in Berkeley. We helped the boys with choreography for their dances as well as gave them tips and guided them in the right direction for their projects when needed,” said Garcia. The eighth graders were given an additional project. They were divided into groups of four and were tasked with making a workout video that included dance and movements. Garcia mentioned that in addition to the physical movement in the video, the students had to include “terminology and dialogue.”

When asked about any advice for someone considering the class, Askew said “The students you teach will learn a lot from you, but that’s just the half of it. The best part of the teaching experience is what you are able to learn from your students.” Garcia echoed this sentiment. “The class is so worthwhile because you not only learn about how to be a good teacher, but you learn how to be a good student as well.” Fessler mentions that since taking the class, she is more comfortable speaking in front of people, and more prepared to think on her feet. “Even if it isn’t your full-time career, if you want to dabble in teaching, it’s well worth it” said Fessler.

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Read the interviews with Curtis, Katy, and Rachel below: