New York City. The place where over 400 schools have integrated a dance program in their curriculum. How did they do it? And how can we do it? I’ve met up with some of the people responsible for taking dance education to a higher level, starting with the woman that started it all: Joan Finkelstein.
It’s a Wednesday morning and I’m arriving at the Harkness Foundation for Dance at East 48th street in the heart of Manhattan. The city is busy as usual and I’m trying to keep up the pace. People move fast here, it seems like they’re always in a hurry. One of the typical NYC quirks. New York can have it’s wonderful, but also strangely concerning quirks too. While waiting for my interview in the lobby of the building, the doorman points at the sign at the end of the hall, which says I can’t use my phone (even for texting!) in the lobby. I ask him why, he shrugs his shoulders and simply says: “it’s New York honey”.
New York has the New York vibe and New Yorkers have it too. So enters the wonderful Joan who has, amazingly, agreed to meet with me for a short talk (which ended up being twice as long). Joan, Executive Director of the Harkness Foundation for Dance, has been a pioneer in dance education for many years and has done some groundbreaking work to integrate dance in public schools. After working as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, she directed the 92Y Harkness Dance Center from 1992-2004 and worked as a Director of Dance for the New York City Department of Education from 2004-2014. Recently she worked as a Dance Education Consultant for the New York Emmy-nominated documentary film about dance education in public schools called PS DANCE!
We sit down in a small room full of dance memorabilia. We start our conversation talking about the history of 92Y Harkness Dance Center and the Dance Education Laboratory (DEL) (about which I will share more in later blogs) and then we gradually shift to her work at the NYC Department of Education. During the time she worked here, she spearheaded the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance, PreK-12 and professional development for dance teachers. “I’ve heard so many dancers and choreographers talk about how hard it was to survive in this city. There was no money and no management.” So basically dance was not acknowledged as it should have been. And even though a lot has happened since, it is still a struggle. Joan continues and explains what needs to happen in orden for dance to be more acknowledged: “We have to change the position of dance in our culture. We need to literate children. If they are taught that dance is a part of our culture and they have a positive experience with dance as an art form, then they will most likely love it as an adult”.
Music and visual arts already had a blue print so she decided to gather over a hundred professionals that work in dance education in NYC and talk about a Blueprint for dance.
The Blueprint is created from the National Core Arts Standards in Dance (in which Joan also played a great part developing), but made especially for New York. It’s an eighty page bookwork that describes the goals for dance education from PreK-12. “We questioned the contributors about what the content of the Blueprint should be. What processes do we go through as dancers and choreographers? From there we created the five strands of learning in dance”. And those five strands are:
Developing Dance Literacy
Working with Community and Cultural Resources
Exploring Careers and Lifelong Learning
The Blueprint is organized by benchmark years (grade 2, grade 5, grade 8, grade 12) and it moves through the five strands of dance learning for each benchmark, followed by a sample unit that illustrates a strategy for holistic dance teaching.
“The standards are not meant to narrow; they are meant to inspire. Not every teacher will teach their class in the same way. So they can achieve the goal of the standards with their own curriculum and teach to their own strength. The standards just create a common language for dance professionals that come from different backgrounds.”
What’s impressive to me is that they had input from so many people to put the Blueprint together. “You need a community of dance educators. Bring together the most inspiring people from the field and start a community”. And a community is exactly what we are building now in the Netherlands, with a new platform for dance teachers (‘Danspiratie’) and all sorts of other initiatives.
Joan concludes our talk: “Dance is embodied learning. There’s a mind-body connection. All we need is our bodies, it’s the child’s instrument. That’s our way in. You can make this happen in your own country.”
I leave her office inspired. New York has been such an amazing city. 400 schools with dance in their program, how wonderful! And if they can do it, so can we.