Smile Politely

The School Dance

Dance is not often considered to be a part of an elementary school’s core curriculum – unless that school is in Urbana, Ill.

Though elementary schools have a habit of situating dance somewhere between physical education and music class, Urbana School District 116 (USD 116) devotes a half-hour block of time daily to dance instruction for six weeks of every school year.  But the program is not without faults, USD 116 dance teachers say; limited time, space and funding inhibit the development of a full-fledged dance curriculum.

Champaign Unit 4 Schools are not quite so dance-savvy.  Though the district employs award-winning teachers in fine arts genres such as music, visual art and drama, there exists no School Board-regulated dance curriculum.

When it comes to private education in the Champaign-Urbana area, the University Primary School (UPS) has made a solid commitment to teaching the fine arts. The UPS directors emphasize Art and Aesthetics as a part of the school’s central curriculum; freelance dance teacher Donna Warwick teaches a program she calls Artsfusion, which fuses story, art and music appreciation, drama and creative movement, at the UPS one day of every school week.

According to statistics compiled by the National Dance Education Organization in 2003-2004, approximately 6,000 schools nationwide offered dance as a part of the K-12 curriculum, but approximately 57 percent of American children received no training in dance education. As of 1985, Public Act 126 amended the School Code of Illinois to include a requirement that goals for learning dance be identified and assessed. In 1990, USD 116 created the Urbana Elementary Fine Arts Program in response to this Act; Champaign Unit 4 Schools still offer no dance instruction.

Urbana School District 116

USD 116 employs a rotating schedule of fine arts programs; students take 12 weeks of music, 12 weeks of art, six weeks of dance and six weeks of drama during a single school year. During those blocks of time, fine arts teachers see students every day for a half hour per subject.

Though the teachers are responsible for writing their own lesson plans, USD 116 has specific fine arts curriculum goals that must be met each year.  These “Safety Net” standards become more demanding as a student advances through the district’s curriculum. For example, kindergarten and first graders explore the arts on a basic level with the goal of concept recognition, while Grades 3 and 4 are expected to combine elements of different art forms to communicate broader ideas.

“In the beginning, it is more to expose the kids to dance as an art form,” said USD 116 Dance, Drama and Music Teacher Cara Maurizi. “A lot of the movement is intrinsic, but it is about safety and bodily and spatial awareness.”

But the dance curriculum only lasts through fifth grade, explained Urbana Elementary Fine Arts Program Coordinator Betty Allen.

“Dance and Drama curricula are very separate from art and music curricula, which continue through high school and middle school,” Allen said. “And it is because of a lack of funding that they don’t continue.”

In addition to overseeing the Urbana Elementary Fine Arts Program as a whole, Allen works with colleagues Cara Maurizi, Maggie Kinnamon and Angela Wyatt to teach dance to students in USD 116’s six elementary schools.

Most of the fine arts teachers are assigned to two schools, Maurizi said, but she works at three due to “last minute changes.” And the constant change of atmosphere is a challenge.

“The hardest thing for me is being in three buildings – with three different administrators, three sets of expectations,” Maurizi said. “Every time I start a new block [of six weeks], I feel like it is the first day of school.”

For Kinnamon, the biggest challenge is inadequate space, she said; dance classes seem to be at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to room assignments at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School and Leal Elementary School.

“For two of my blocks [of time], I’m using the art room that isn’t being occupied at the time,” Kinnamon explained. “Otherwise I am using the multipurpose room, which is also the lunchroom and the meeting place for all afterschool activities. It is a good space, but it is a public space… People are walking through it all the time, which can be distracting.”

As Allen suggested, the fine arts must also work with limited funding; Maurizi explanied that each dance teacher has a budget of $500-600 per year. This, when combined with the teachers’ limited time allotments, often prevents teachers from taking full advantage of the Champaign-Urbana dance community.

“That is one of the biggest frustrations we have – being in a community that is rich with resources like that and not being able to get the performers in our schools or being able to take field trips,” Kinnamon said. “It would be a matter of finding a substitute for us, and the district being willing to fund that. Usually if performers want to come, nobody wants to pay for it.”
Maurizi agreed, stating that this year, “there is no money for anything.”

Maurizi explained that she was able to take her class to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts (KCPA) once during her 2 years of teaching dance in USD 116; due to hectic rehearsal schedules, it is rare that KCPA performers visit elementary schools to work with students. But community outreach does happen.

Kinnamon explained that two years ago, Balinese dancers who were in residence at the University held workshops at all USD 116 elementary schools.

“It was phenomenal,” Kinnamon said. “With things like that, they do a performance for everyone, and then target a grade to do a workshop with – it is usually with the older kids.”

And KCPA performers get involved with the Champaign-Urbana community, too; when the Mark Morris Dance Group was in residence at the UIUC, the company’s outreach coordinator contacted Allen. The pair organized a dance workshop for the kids at Yankee Ridge Elementary School at no cost to the school.

“We are really lucky that we have that kind of a connection in the Champaign-Urbana dance community,” Allen said.

But a fine arts program can’t rely on generosity alone. Allen explained that there are entities in the Champaign-Urbana community, such as the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation, that offer small grants to educators.

“I just wrote one and I am now able to buy some flip cameras for our fine arts teachers,” Allen said.

The organization also offers larger grants; a teacher can receive up to $4,000 per year.

University Primary School

In private schools like University Primary, funding is easier to come by; parents of kindergarten and first grade students pay more than $750 per semester to ensure that the school can financially support all of its special programs.

The school employs independent dance artist and teacher Donna Warwick, who introduces a unique blend of fine arts curriculum to its students.

“At University Primary, the school raises the funds for my salary and any child can choose to be a part of that class,” Warwick said.  “I must applaud that school because they really see the value and want to bring this to every student.”

Dr. Ali Lewis, Director of the University Primary School, explained that Warwick began working with the UPS students five years ago; Warwick’s program is funded through an endowment fund, in addition to through occasional monies donated by UPS parents.

“Donna has continued [at UPS] because parents really want her here,” Lewis said. “If we didn’t have enough money through the endowment fund to keep her here, I would raise money to keep her here.”

Lewis explained that UPS administrators and parents are not smitten with the arts alone; it is Warwick’s method of teaching in particular that garners widespread support.

“It is not just that it is dance, it is that it is Donna’s dance,” Lewis said. “Her way of working with the kids – the balance of structured and unstructured time really resonates with the kids.”

Warwick’s program, Artsfusion, was born from her observations that children are highly visual learners; their inspiration from movement, Warwick explained, often comes from emulating a character or an image that they are familiar with outside of class.

“I thought, ‘What if I exposed them to works of great art that they really enjoyed – in terms of color, content or emotionally?’” Warwick said. “I wanted to see if that would give them the same inspiration for movement [that they get when they watch cartoons.] I knew that they had to have a story.”

Warwick uses visual images, objects, instruments and prerecorded music, to develop narratives with her students. She then asks the children to pick a character in the story, and to move as that character would move.

“It is completely uninhibited,” she said. “The students are thinking, ‘The frog is moving in the story.’ They don’t have that feeling of inhibition they may have when I say, ‘Move like a frog.’ Children are excited about it.”

Sara Hook, a member of the UIUC Department of Dance faculty and a mother of two, had only complimentary things to say about Warwick’s approach.

“I am a dance professional with over 30 years of experience, including international touring,” Hook said. “When I moved here 10 years ago from New York City, I was astonished to find such a gifted and dedicated creative dance teacher in a small community! I admire her and learn from her every time I observe her…and I entrust my own young children’s early dance exposure to her with confidence.”

Warwick explained that her motivation for teaching is simple.

“I only want one thing – I just want children to be happy,” Warwick said.  “If children are happy, parents are happy and administrators are happy. I can show my students something, and we [adults] find out more about what children know, don’t know and want to know…versus what they have to know.”

Though Warwick is a certified elementary school teacher, she said she does not agree with traditional, often sedentary, methods of teaching young children.

“Children want to move more than they want to sit,” Warwick said, “and if they want to move, I want to give them a way to learn when they are in motion.”

Warwick explained that a child is telling an adult that he or she is interested in horses by “galloping around” the house.

“They don’t want to open a book and read about it,” Warwick said. “They want to become the horse.”

Kinnamon echoed Warwick’s sentiments.

“Parents tell me regularly that their kids love my class so much, that that’s all they talk about when they go home,” Kinnamon said. “It is not natural for kids to sit at a desk all day, [so dancing stands out].”

Maurizi noted movement’s ability to enhance learning in all subject areas.

“You never know what kid is going to benefit from dance,” she said. “We’ve already proven that a lot of kids learn kinesthetically. Having a dance education may help them connect to something they wouldn’t have been able to in other settings.”

Lewis said that after UPS students work with Warwick, they come back into the classroom primed to learn.

“The kids come back and they have the same look in their eyes like they had recess – they are more awake and more aware…more receptive to the tests ahead of them,” Lewis said. “They can come back to the classroom and physically listen to a story a bit better. I think there is a benefit to their whole person to have been in that dance experience.”

Champaign Unit 4 School District

Champaign Board of Education President Dave Tomlinson explained that a student’s participation in the fine arts is often directly correlated to high academic achievement.

“Every high-achieving student I have ever met, or even heard of, has a performing arts or music background,” Tomlinson said. “It is rare that they don’t have that…Champaign Unit 4 School District had three perfect ACT test scores last year, and two of the students with perfect scores were musicians.”

Though Tomlinson lauded the award-winning music, visual art and drama teachers who are employed by Champaign Unit 4, he said that the district has no classroom dance program; dance exists in Champaign Unit 4 schools only as a small component of physical education classes. Dance-focused extracurricular activities exist at the middle school and high school levels for those students who express interest.

During his six years as Board President, Tomlinson said, it has never been suggested that the district implement dance curriculum on a regular basis.

“There are two things that I can speculate would prevent dance from being in the curriculum – either lack of interest in enrollment or a lack of general funding,” Tomlinson said. “I would like to start Mandarin Chinese, frankly, but it is costly. Now is not the time to build a new program anywhere.”

Tomlinson noted the increased pressure felt by schools to meet district standards in core subject areas such as reading and math.

“I think [the time spent on teaching the fine arts] areas could be increased, but that is where the time crunch comes into play,” he said. “There is only a finite amount of time in the day, so there are scheduling issues that happen.”

Fine Arts Integration

The “state testing” issue isn’t specific to Champaign Unit 4 schools; USD 116 parent Tim Steltzer expressed concern about the future the Urbana School District’s fine arts program for the same reason.

“My wife and I are enthusiastic supporters of the [Urbana Elementary Fine Arts] program…my kids love it,” Steltzer said. “A big concern of ours is that the arts don’t show up on No Child Left Behind. That means they are one of those things that schools find difficult to justify putting resources into.”

Tomlinson explained that “the new trend” is to combine core subjects in school to save time; for example, a teacher may use an article about a science-related topic to integrate his or her science and reading lessons for the day.  But how much integration of the fine arts into core classroom topics occurs in Champaign Unit 4 schools, Tomlinson said he does not know.

“What I have seen would be integrating the fine arts in more of a specialized way,” he said. “If a student needed extra help, the fine arts may be used as an alternative method to get the student the help he or she needs…Clearly there is going to be room for music therapy and speech therapy in special education.”

At UPS, the fine arts are integrated throughout the school day – not just during specific blocks of time – Lewis explained; as a Reggio Emilia school, UPS centers its curriculum around arts and aesthetics.

“The Reggio Emilia philosophy sees children as creators and inspirers of their own world,” Lewis said. “As a part of that, at UPS, we really pay attention to the environment as a third teacher… [Our students] see art and experience art throughout their days. Even in math, you would see some art emerge on most days.”

Lewis has noted, however, that Warwick’s Artsfusion is particularly resonant with UPS’s autistic students.

“Our students who have special needs – Autism spectrum disorder, to be specific – those students in particular are very drawn in Donna’s class,” Lewis said. “In her class, those students can participate on the same developmental level as their peers, which is huge.”

Lewis emphasized that the arts are a true equalizer in the classroom.

“For some of our kids who are less active in a discussion about reading in classroom, they may be more active during Donna’s time,” Lewis said. “It gives a lot of kids the opportunity to express themselves in a new way.”

She also noted that when Warwick works with the UPS students, they are “100 percent engaged, 100 percent of the time.”

“Donna captures [the students] and listens to them. She listens to their ideas and makes them happen,” Lewis said. “Kids are inspired by her – they see their ideas actualized.”

Warwick’s demeanor gives children the confidence to express their ideas outside of her class, Lewis noted, a skill that will always be beneficial.

Based on her experience with UPS, Lewis has high hopes for the future of fine arts education in the United States.

“In the time of standardized testing, I would hope that the voice of the arts can become stronger and stronger, and that it can push back against the emphasis on traditional models of learning,” she said. “We need to remember that the arts are a way to practice creative and flexible thinking…to remember that those skills, in the end, are more important than memorizing the answer to, ‘What is 2 + 2?’ I think in the end, someone who has engaged with the arts has an advantage.”

Warwick agreed with Lewis.

“Everybody wants their kids to learn the ABCs in school – just try to teach it without singing it,” Warwick quipped. “If you take the song element out of the ABCs, you are going to have a much tougher time learning them…We need to roll that fine arts component over into higher grades – we need to keep the arts as a component of learning other things.”

It appears as though the elementary schools in Urbana are one step ahead of the game.

Photos by Kirsten Pauli

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