Students revel in Alvin Ailey dance education

A school program shares the choreographer's legacy of learning and expression.

Stiff horsemen look down from a white frieze outlining the auditorium walls at William Barton Rogers Middle School in Boston. Below, knees are flapping and feet are kicking. Laughter punches into the air as a hip-hop song pumps out of the stereo. For a glorious hour and a half, 40 seventh-graders are released from the confines of their desks into a realm where they have so much fun, they barely notice how much they're learning.

The teachers can see it, of course. "It's amazing – they come here and they really truly listen," says language-arts teacher Mae Semnack, three days into a week-long program put together by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Particularly with the boys, she says, behavior is better than it sometimes is in the classroom – "and how creative they become!"

About seven years ago, Alvin Ailey educators broadened their school visits to include more than just dance technique. "With the focus in education being on literacy and academics, we wanted to have ... something that would integrate dance into core academic subjects," says Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, director of Arts in Education and Community Programs for the multicultural modern dance company based in New York.

The curriculum is based on "Revelations," a signature work choreographed by Ailey in 1960 and still performed today. Created by public-school dance teacher Kathleen Isaac, the lessons tap into the life of the famed African-American dancer to bring to light history and social issues. Linked to national standards for arts education, the assignments prompt students to write about their own experiences and choreograph representative dances. Since 2001, more than 5,000 children throughout the United States have participated.

Visiting dance teachers help fill what arts advocates see as a serious void. While the arts in general struggle for a stable portion of school budgets, dance is even less available than music and visual arts. Only about 7 percent of students attend a school where dance is taught by a specialist, but 33 percent attend schools where visiting artists are brought in to demonstrate or teach. ()

"Dance in education has been considered 'fluff'; and very often dance is thought of as steps; it is not understood as a symbolic language of movement," says Rima Faber, program director for the National Dance Education Organization, an advocacy group in Bethesda, Md. "The educational importance ... has been greatly undervalued." She praises groups like Alvin Ailey for programs tied to standards that expose students to the art form, but she laments that many schools stop short of providing an ongoing curriculum.

Researchers have pointed out that many students are kinesthetic learners, meaning they learn best through movement and activity. The College Board reported in 2000 that taking four years of arts courses was correlated with higher SAT scores (though it didn't claim a causal relationship).

Here at Rogers Middle School in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston, vice principal Camille Young was so impressed with the Ailey educators two years ago that she's left the giant dance posters up on the walls ever since. "We don't have very many arts at all in this school.... This is an opportunity of a lifetime," she says. For the whole Boston school district – 57,000 students – there are 10 certified dance teachers, none of whom teach regularly at Rogers.

With 25 percent of the students at this school in special education, "this program is the great equalizer," Ms. Young says. "To see [the special-needs students] doing the same things as well or better than everybody else – I could see the self-esteem. Some are very shy kids, and you see it all melt away." (Only about 85 out of 500-plus students can participate, but the staff selects a group representing a wide range of academic ability.)

Today's session, overseen by Ms. Thomas-Schmitt and five "teaching artists," alternates between dancing and discussions with the students as they face the white paper that's become a temporary "word wall." Students are frequently called up to speak or dance in front of the group.

They break into clusters of girls and boys to practice routines they have choreographed. The task is to incorporate four elements, each for eight counts of music: a rise, a fall, a reach, and a balancing pose. One group of particularly energetic boys throws in a backward somersault. When they finish a practice, one of them urges, "We need a better rise, cause teams are picking up on us." After another run-through, they bump their chests together proudly.

"I was a little nervous," says Manny Francisco, a student in another group, talking about performing in front of everyone. But he smiles and nods when asked if he's getting more comfortable. "It's really fun."

"I've never done this before," says classmate Kevin Sanchez. Having just practiced the moves from a male solo in "Revelations," Kevin breathes heavily and admits, "It was hard to keep up."

When the kids get restless watching other groups, it's an opportunity for a quick lesson on how to behave respectfully as an audience, in advance of the trip they'll all soon be taking downtown to see an Alvin Ailey performance at the glittery Citi Performing Arts Center.

For many, it will be their first trip to a major theater. Math teacher Julie Sweetman recalls the first such trip two years ago: "It's a big deal, and they know it's a big deal, so it kind of made this [series of classes] seem more important."

Teachers also receive professional development so they can incorporate the curriculum into their classes after the dance instructors have moved on.

Alvin Ailey's Thomas-Schmitt often talks with students about pre­paring for the future. Praising a boy for voluntarily typing his homework, she launches into how important it is to present oneself and one's work well, especially when applying for colleges or jobs. She has a girl read from her essay about how Ailey had humble beginnings but was able to succeed with his own dance company.

Her no-nonsense tone is that of mentor rather than lecturer. "They get to see us as role models," Thomas-Schmitt says. The staff of freelance dance teachers hails from Croatia, Brazil, and various US cities. Thomas-Schmitt, from New York, is a former performer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater; she worked with Ailey before he died in 1989. And, like the majority of the students in this school, she's African-American.

Even for students who aren't thrilled with the academic component, the opportunity to dance is a big motivator. "I don't like to read, period, but since it's about my life ... [and about] Alvin Ailey, it's OK," says Janilia John, a student from Trinidad who loves to dance in her free time.

For their next homework assignment, they'll write about one of their "blood memories," Ailey's term for his own deep life memories that inspired "Revelations," a piece performed to gospel music. Then they'll work in groups to interpret some of those memories through dance.

"It's really exciting when they find out things about themselves," says teaching artist Theara Ward, a tall woman with a soft, sweet smile. "They're not used to being asked what they believe, how they think, how they feel. They really open up."

She recalls a girl in Memphis who wrote a poem for an assignment. "When we danced out the poem, she saw how powerful her writing was, and she came up to me and said,... 'Now I know there's something special about my writing.' " It confirmed the girl's desire to become a journalist.

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