Guest teaching in public schools is difficult. The laws that have made the world a safer place for children – have made the life of the dance teacher a precarious one. Teaching dance is a hands-on process. As a dance teacher, you use your hands to correct body positions. It is essential. Telling someone to use a certain leg muscle is one thing, but putting your hand on that specific place of the student’s body is much more effective. They can physically feel the muscle that they need to use. Dance engages all the muscles: Inner thighs, stomach, butt, etc., and let’s face it – outside of the dance context – an adult touching any of those areas would get into some serious trouble – as they should but the question still remains – how can one effectively teach and maintain a safe environment for children? The male teachers have it the hardest. I had one colleague who was accused of inappropriate touching when he took a child by the shoulders and moved the child across the room to a line. Was there any inappropriate touching? No. How do I know? I was there. Today, I still teach occasionally in public schools but I am very careful not to touch any of the students. I sometimes wonder if we are accomplishing anything beyond possibly generating an interest in dance for some child to the point where they might enroll in a proper dance school or go see a dance performance.
Many of my weakest dance students in the private professional dance sector all had one thing in common – they had all attended one of city’s public performing arts schools. Imagine my sadness (after attending one of their school dance performances) when I discovered that they were among the best in their school. Then again – I’m not sure why I was surprised. When I was a kid – I attended several summer dance programs with students from New York’s famous performing arts school. A lot of those kids couldn’t keep up with us either. We used to joke that the school taught all of the dance program kids how to walk like ducks before they taught them how to dance – at least they looked like ballet dancers when they were strolling down the streets of New York.
Since when does setting the achievement level to the lowest common denominator do anyone any good? There are a lot of delusional people in the educational system (students, parents, teachers and school boards). I’ve worked a few times for a performing arts school – as a guest choreographer – which means I go in for a set amount of time and create a work on the students. I ran into problems on my very first engagement. A small core of students skipped as many classes as they could. When you are trying to create a work on an entire class – it becomes difficult to work when you are always missing a portion of the students. After several frustrating rehearsals, I decided to take the missing students out of the piece. That’s when I came up against school policy. I was informed that ALL students must be in the piece – regardless of attendance. Interesting – as a professional – if you miss a rehearsal without a good reason – you lose the role, get fined or get fired. I’m still unclear as to what the school was teaching these students – that there are no consequences for their actions? I complied with the school – with a slight variation. I put the missing students into the piece – just in a different position – as background movement – my version of “moving trees”. Well – at least I learned my lesson. Now when I work for the performing arts schools – I go in assuming that some part of the class will be missing and I create the work that is fluid enough to deal with a vacillating cast.
The saddest thing about performing arts schools is the plight of the good teachers in these schools – teachers who have had professional careers and who know what it actually means to be a dancer. Within this idiotic system – their hands are tied. They cannot touch, they cannot reprimand, they cannot nurture excellence. University accredited teachers with no professional experience are their bosses. Their frustration grows. In this idiotic system, these talented people have to make a choice – Go along with the system and they receive a paycheck with benefits OR – Try to make a difference and they’re out on the streets. It really is a shame to waste their talent and knowledge.