About a year ago, I first saw the New York documentary ‘PS DANCE!’. I just couldn’t believe it: a documentary based solely on dance education in public schools had been made for everyone to see. Since then I’ve watched it a couple of times and I was (and still am) very impressed. Through this film I learned about the massive amount of dance classes being taught in NYC public schools. The film showed the schools and I saw actual dance studio’s (with mirrors and spring floors!), principals talking about the importance of dance and children saying how happy they were that they were able to dance in school. Speaking with Joan Finkelstein, Dance Education Consultant of the film, made it very clear how this was all made possible. But the documentary also inspired me to contact Catherine Gallant, one of the teachers in the film. I was so impressed by her teaching that I knew I had to speak to her. She accepted my request and we agreed to meet at the 92Y, a cultural and community center in NYC, home of the 92Y Harkness Dance Center and Dance Education Laboratory (DEL).
Catherine Gallant is a dancer, teacher and choreographer. She performs and teaches internationally; at the time we meet she has just arrived back from Copenhagen, Denmark, where she has been training dance teachers in creative dance for children. Her work is known around the world and her knowledge appreciated by many, as shown by the numerous of prestigious schools she gives classes and workshops for and her participation in writing the Blueprint for the Arts in Dance for NYC. I feel very lucky to sit down and talk to this amazing woman.
PSDance! at PS89
The New York Emmy-nominated documentary PSDance! gives the audience insight in NYC public schools and their dance educators, dance classes and children. It shows different kind of schools and the teachers teach in many different dance styles. It captures what happens when students experience dance as part of the school curriculum and gives the perfect example of how many of us believe dance should be taught in every school around the world. The documentary moves up in age, starting with the younger kids and ending with high school students. Working mostly with young kids myself, I’m intrigued by the first part of the film, where we get a look into Catherine’s dance studio at the PS89 Liberty School in Manhattan, NYC. Catherine tells me it all started 16 years ago, when the school principal agreed to let her start giving classes one day a week. The next year it turned to two days and by 2002 she started working fulltime, teaching Pre-K to grade 5. She teaches creative dance and connects classroom curriculum to her dance classes. In that way, students work on the same subject or theme not only with their classroom teacher, but also in the dance classes. All the students work with Catherine for the entire duration of their school years. Lucky them!
Advocating for dance education
Catherine tells me that although she has been working at the school for many years and dance has fully integrated in the school’s curriculum, it is still in need of much advocacy. ‘Dance should be core curriculum. It’s all about equity and serving all kinds of learners’ she tells me, and I fully agree. She also talks about the importance of classroom teachers being aware of what’s happening in the dance class. From what I know, a lot of classroom teachers, understandably, use the time when their kids are in dance class to get some work done. The importance of seeing your children in a different class, exploring their capabilities in a new manner should not be underestimated. It’s hard to find a balance in that. Classroom teachers have a lot to do, but we also hope that they would want to come and see their kids and perhaps integrate some of the dance exercises in their classroom. Catherine has found other ways of including both teachers and parents. ‘It’s all about educating the adults. Students already know why they’re dancing, without even having to explain it.’ Advocating dance is difficult these days, because it goes against everything the tests say. Children have to excel in mathematics, language and science. So that is what is of most importance. Catherine has made a habit out of giving children small things to take back home, things the children make in school. She frequently uploads video’s on the school’s website so the parents can actually see what the children are doing. ‘People need reference points when it comes to dance.’ She advices to put a flatscreen in the outside hall, talk to parents, or organize a Family Friday, where parents can join the kids in the dance studio.
It’s like recess
And that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the documentary. It actually shows the importance of dance. And it’s so, so important for it to be seen. The film focusses on the need of children for unstructured play. The need that is created because of the amount of time spend in front of a screen nowadays. We see children enjoying, laughing, playing, but all within a certain guided exploration. The children are learning a lot, without even knowing it. And that’s, at least in my opinion, how children should learn. Through exploration and play. A young student in the film captures it perfectly: ‘It’s like having recess, but instead of having recess, we have dance.’
Feel your own strength
Knowing your own body, knowing others, knowing where you are in space; all very important things that children learn in dance. And it shows: we see how the young kids take up the entire space without touching each other, whereas normally in a public school dance class, all the kids move to the center of the room and move as close to each other as possible. Just by witnessing that, it shows Catherine puts in a great amount of work and accomplishes wonderful things. So what are her main focusses? ‘I teach kids about being in the moment, thinking, moving and feeling at the same time, empathy towards other people, conflict resolution, recognizing other people, accepting differences, making choices and I’m helping them find their abilities.’ It starts by teaching the children about their own bodies and then taking it to the outside world: ‘You start to feel your own strength first and then you can show that confidence and strength to the world.’
The magic in movement
What amazes me most is Catherine’s humble and kind nature. She has done so much wonderful work for the dance education community and I can tell she is still very fond of working at the elementary school. She explains: ‘it’s all about finding the magic in movement and I love to explore with the children.’ She shares a wonderful quote by Margaret H’Doubler that lingered after we had long said our goodbyes: If we can think, feel, and move, we can dance. It’s as easy as that.
After our meeting I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and think about how awesome it must be to grow up in a city like NYC. To have the most beautiful paintings, sculptures, theatre performances, concerts just around the corner. And to be able to dance. In school. Every single day. That would just be magical.
Want to see the documentary? You can buy the dvd on the website or watch it here for free!