by Rachel Hellwig
“Dance is only taught in a fraction of schools nationally. But here in New York City, a growing number of schools are offering dance as a distinct course of study,” says Paula Zahn, host of PS DANCE!, a new film that explores and celebrates dance education in New York City public schools.
At P.S. 89 Liberty School in Manhattan, dance teacher Catherine Gallant guides her elementary students through an exercise set to Saint-Saens’ music “Aquarium”. They improvise aquatic life forms in swimming, swishing, watery gestures as she calls out ideas to inspire them. Gallant says that “all children have a large appetite for movement”. She also employs dance to help students remember history. When her class studies Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, they use motion to imitate the experiences of escaping slaves–running through fields, crossing bridges, and hiding behind trees.
At P.S. 315 School of Performing Arts in Brooklyn, Ana Fragoso’s dance classes create an atmosphere where students “can express themselves without fear of any negative response”. Students make dances and offer each other positive suggestions about ways to improve their work. Fragoso points out that dance is largely a social activity and helps cultivate collaboration, a helpful skill in other areas of life. P.S. 315 additionally offers an afterschool performance group where fourth and fifth graders create choreography to showcase at different venues around the city.
Michael Kerr’s middle school dance classes at New Voices School of Academic & Creative Arts in Brooklyn likewise create an uplifting environment where students can feel free to express themselves–an important experience during the challenging years of early adolescence. “Dance is for everyone,” he says, “It’s not just for those who want to become dancers […] You’re studying dance because you’re studying dance, the way that you’re studying math or science. Not everybody who studies science is going to become a scientist”.
At Science Skills Center High School in Brooklyn, where pupils may indeed go on to be scientists, weekly dances are used to supplement the curriculum. Teacher Patricia Dye believes that developing both the left and right sides of the brain “makes a whole person.” An added benefit is that dance helps relieve the stress of intense academic study. For those interested in more than just classes, the school features a student-run company that offers experiences in performing and management.
On the other end of the spectrum, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, an audition-only high school in Queens, provides training in ballet and modern to students who often go on to study dance in college. Nevertheless, teacher Ani Udovicki emphasizes the benefits of artistic study to all students regardless of career path, “I think the arts are good for any growing person because they target the imagination. No matter what you to do life, to have imagination helps […] whether you’re the future Einstein or Ratmansky.”
It took Nel Shelby two years to complete this documentary, which she directed and produced with Jody Gottfried Arnhold and Joan Finkelstein. She states, “I hope this film illuminates the powerful impact dance education can have on every child and grows into a movement to provide this opportunity nationwide.”
We hope so too.