Introducing Your High School Students to Modern Dance

Lucy Vurusic Riner

I have been teaching at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRFHS) for fifteen years.  I inherited the job from a great teacher and friend who had already built and maintained a substantial program.  I am also blessed to work in a community where the arts are respected and appreciated.  My job is to keep reinventing a dance experience that caters to all of our students and teaches them to be life long dance enthusiasts.  I’m proud to say that when I walk into work each day, I believe that’s what we are doing.

Our dance program is part of the Physical Education Department, and students are required to take one dance class before they can graduate from the high school.  That’s right.  EVERYBODY dances. Once everyone has taken a nine week (quarter) class as a freshmen, entitled “Introduction to Movement,” they can either be finished with their dance experience or continue to take dance classes at a more advanced level as juniors or seniors.  Although our introductory course covers seven different dance styles, the overall dance program is based in modern dance.  We want our students to know how modern dance came out of and is still influenced by other dance forms…

Every dance teacher that works in our program has either received a degree with a concentration in modern dance or has studied modern dance extensively in college.  And as we as dance teachers know, it’s hard to get in and out of college without experiencing modern dance at some level, especially if dance is a subject area one majors or minors in.  I have found that the majority of dancers in our program have all had extensive experiences in ballet, tap or jazz dance but their experiences in modern dance are either minimal or non existent.  So our program introduces beginning dancers to modern dance right away, and in doing so, we develop dancers who not only know how to use their bodies in another dance form, but also understand how to watch and experience dance at a higher level.

So how do we get them interested in modern dance?  When everyone wants to be the next hip hop dancer in Beyonce’s videos or the next ballerina at ABT?  Well, as I mentioned previously, we start them with modern dance as their first experience.  As with anything new, it’s hard to make comparisons if you have nothing to compare it to!  Many people wonder why we do not start with a ballet class as a foundation for all movement and dance vocabulary.  We have found that starting with ballet can be intimidating due to preconceived notions that students already have about ballet dance.  Many students already assume that they can’t do ballet.  Because our beginner dancers don’t always know what to expect with modern dance, it peaks their curiousity and helps us get them started.  And so we teach them modern dance basics along with some history to help them make connections to other dance forms and how everything is connected.  We also try to make modern dance easy to learn and fun to perform.  A lot of students that aren’t introduced to modern dance until later in life are intimidated by it because they are always trying to analyze the movement sequences or understand the intention behind the dance.  We like for our students to learn quick and easy phrases to a variety of different music styles to get them hooked so to speak; then we can eventually move on to harder movement patterns and concepts and introduce ballet to them when they are ready for the new challenge.

After we have had a week or so to introduce them to the general concepts of modern dance we try to dispel any myths they might have had about it at the beginning of class.  Students quickly learn that modern dance is hard.  The illusion that modern dancers just throw themselves around in a series of random movement sequences disappears once our students try to lead with their heads while still engaging their abdominals or roll into and out of the floor in one fluid motion.  Students appreciate the athleticism that goes into modern dance and can relate experiences that they also have in ballet and jazz dance.  Students also learn that watching modern dance can and should be fun AND enlightening.  We try to teach our students to interpret dances on a personal level.  What did that dance mean to you?  And why?  There are no right or wrong ways to watch modern dance.  And lastly, longevity in ones’ career as a modern dancer is often revered rather than criticized.  I want my students to know that if they choose a career in any kind of dance they should embrace every style that they feel they can learn.  Many modern dancers are able to maintain longer careers due to the nature of how modern dance is typically performed and choreographed.  Prime examples of this are Mikhail Baryshnikov and Pina Bausch; both who began their careers as ballet dancers and then continued to train, perform and make dances in experimental modern dance for years after their last ballet performance.

So I encourage dance educators to not shy away from teaching your students modern dance.  If we don’t allow our high school dancers to have a diverse dance experience in secondary education, they will be at a disadvantage if they are continuing their dance studies in college. 

Bringing in guest choreographers and teachers that can give them a taste of this continuously evolving dance form is a great idea.  Having been exposed to modern dance as a young dancer can only benefit our students in the long run.  Because dancing barefoot is liberating, rolling into the floor builds character and understanding your body from yet another perspective is never a bad thing.

Lucy Vurusic Riner is a native Chicagoan who has been supporting and contributing to the dance community for over twenty years. She received her BS Degree in dance and dance education from Illinois State University.  Lucy has been a member of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak Dance Company, RTG Dance Company and Matthew Hollis’ “The Power of Cheer.”  She has also had the opportunity to be part of the community cast of White Oak Dance Project and David Dorfman Dance.

Riner has taught modern, hip hop, and jazz at numerous studios and high schools in the Chicagoland area.  She has been the Director of Dance at Oak Park and River Forest High School since 1999. In 2005, Lucy completed her Masters Degree in Education from National Louis University and also received the Midwest Dance Teacher of the Year award and was the youngest of four finalists in the running for the National Dance Teacher of the Year award.  Lucy and artistic partner, Michael Estanich, formed RE|Dance in 2010.  This dancer theater company investigates humanity in movement through long distance collaboration.  Lucy has also begun work on a long-term project entitled, “The Moving Vessel” which explores the impact of motherhood on the professional dancer.  When Lucy is not working with independent choreographers and producing her own shows, she is at home with her two great kids, Margie and Luka, and her very supportive husband, Jim.

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4 Comments Leave yours

  1. Kathy #

    I went to OPRF (a long time ago!), and although I’m not a dancer really, I took all the dance classes I could while there and learned enough to feel I could be confident in different situations requiring some moderate dancing skills. I was really amazed that a high school P.E. program could have such rich and challenging classes, and it’s wonderful that you are continuing it. I went to school with Cathy Tully, and I’m guessing Diana Ivas is who you were referring to. She was a great teacher!

    Kathy Hayevsky

  2. I didn’t realize you had been there for 15 years!

    Kathy–thanks for the comment–it’s good to know that the classes helped you! :) And yes–Ms. Ivas was pretty amazing!

  3. Kathy!

    I know and have met Diana on numerous occasions over the years but I took over for Robin Hill who now has a really successful dance studio of her own out in LaGrange…The Dance Center of LaGrange. I’m glad that your classes had an impact. I always tell my students that even though they might not believe it now, they will look back on their dance classes with fond memories! And most importantly, I want them to have that art appreciation!

  4. Kathy #

    I can certainly attest to the fact that both fond memories and art appreciation are the result of those dance classes. I think it’s so important that students be well-rounded in a variety of areas, and dance is one which we don’t tend to emphasize. I hope your students appreciate you!

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