October 26, 2020

An Undergraduate Course Puts Students in the Classroom to Teach Dance to Children in Underserved Communities

By Jennifer Altmann

During the spring of her senior year at Princeton, Rachel Schwartz ’18 spent Tuesday afternoons with a roomful of fourth and fifth graders in Trenton as part of a Lewis Center for the Arts course called “Dance in Education.” “I was excited but also nervous,” Schwartz recalls of her first day at the afterschool program of the Boys and Girls Club of Mercer County. “I made a lesson plan, but I was also prepared for the fact that I would probably have to deviate from it.”

As the children wound down from a busy day of school, Schwartz strategized on how to get their attention. She spotted two girls practicing their own moves in front of the mirror. “Instead of telling them to stop, I said, ‘Hey, what’s that move you’re doing?’ ” she says. “Then I tried it myself and got some giggles. I did a more exaggerated version and got even more giggles.” By now, all 14 students were listening, so Schwartz asked the girls to teach the move to the rest of the class.

Schwartz had put into practice one of the lessons imparted by Lewis Center Lecturer in Dance Rebecca Stenn, whose course instructs students in how to teach dance. The class covered classroom management skills, lesson planning strategies, and curriculum design. “She told us that when you get into the classroom, you should trust your instincts and lean into what’s working,” Schwartz says.

rachel in white coat with hands clasped

Rachel Schwartz ’18 address the audience at her senior thesis show, “Can You Taste It?” in May 2018. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Today, Schwartz brings dance into the lives of Trenton youth every day as the director of Trenton Youth Dancers, which is part of Trenton Arts at Princeton, a University program that matches undergraduates with Trenton students for arts outreach programs. Trenton Youth Dancers offers workshops in movement and choreography to high school students, led by Princeton students and alumni. This fall, a Bollywood workshop was led virtually by Naacho Dance Company, the University’s South Asian dance troupe, and Casey Brown ’14 demonstrated zouk, a Brazilian dance style. Schwartz leads Saturday choreography sessions, also remotely, so that the students “can be the creative engine behind their dancing,” she says. She hopes the program “opens their eyes to what an enormous world dance is and to the many different styles and cultures that can be explored through dance.”

Schwartz is one of several students for whom the “Dance in Education” course was a pivotal experience during their time at Princeton and influenced their careers since graduating. Stenn describes the course, which started in 2017, as “equal parts theory and practice. You couldn’t teach a course on the nitty gritty of teaching squiggly 7-year-olds or older kids and not get the students into the classroom. It cements their learning to actually try it and see for themselves what does and doesn’t work.”

There are many valuable lessons to take away from studying dance, Stenn points out. “You’re not so much teaching dance as teaching civility, respect for your partner, the ability to collaborate, and empathy,” she says. There are many physical benefits from getting students out of their chairs and moving, and dancing also helps with self-expression and nonverbal skills.

“You’re not so much teaching dance as teaching civility, respect for your partner, the ability to collaborate, and empathy.”
— Rebecca Stenn, Lecturer in Dance

The course requires each Princeton student to participate in eight to 10 fieldwork sessions, which are now conducted remotely. Students have worked with youngsters in several underserved communities through the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, the Arts and Letters School in Brooklyn, P.S. 33 in Manhattan and other programs. Each week after their fieldwork, the undergraduates discuss their teaching experiences, sharing tips on their successes and comparing notes on what needs improvement.

Anam smiling in black coat by green bush

Photo courtesy Anam Vadgma

For their final project, the Princeton students design a semester-long curriculum for a dance class; they choose the topic and grade level. One student created a plan for teaching fourth-grade math through dance. Another devised a series of lessons that used dance to guide students through ninth-grade world history.

When Anam Vadgama ’18 took the course, she designed a syllabus for tenth graders to study history, political science, and English literature using movement and dance. For an examination of the evolution of the farmers movement in India, for example, the students would create a dance that captured elements of that activism “to help them memorize key aspects of the farmers movement and empathize with farmers,” says Vadgama, who grew up in Mumbai, India, and returned to live there following graduation. She says she has been in talks with Indian government leaders and education non-profits about the prospect of implementing her curriculum in classrooms.

“I come from a community where young girls are often not encouraged to get an education, and I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am to have gotten the opportunity to study,” says Vadgama, who signed up for Stenn’s class because it combined her love of dance with her interest in education policy. “I want to use my own education to give back to society.”

sarah in white and green dress in ballet pose

Sarah Betancourt dances in Pacific (1995), choreographed by Mark Morris and staged by Tina Fehlandt for Princeton Dance Festival 2018 at Berlind Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center. Photo by Larry Levanti.

Sarah Betancourt ’20 is currently a student teacher at Princeton High School. She is completing the final steps in the University’s Teacher Prep program, which will make her eligible for a New Jersey teaching license.

Many takeaways from Stenn’s course have proved helpful to Betancourt this year as she helps teach French and social studies. “Rebecca made me think about what makes teachers effective, and a lot of it is getting to know your students and understanding what their community is like,” says Betancourt, who majored in French and earned a certificate in dance. “You are going to have more success if what you’re doing relates to their lives.” The course on teaching dance particularly helped Betancourt create lesson plans for French because in both fields, “Some students say, ‘I don’t do that. That’s not my thing.’ ” she says.

Betancourt also learned the importance of structuring a lesson with a logical progression that students can follow. “You can’t just say, ‘Choreograph something’ or ‘Write an essay.’ You need to demonstrate the different steps it takes,” she says. She has discovered that those elements are equally important in a class on dance or social studies.

“You can’t just say, ‘Choreograph something’ or ‘Write an essay.’ You need to demonstrate the different steps it takes.”
— Sarah Betancourt ’20

natalia wears headphones and stands at computer

Natalia Solano ’22 remotely teaches middle schoolers as part of the Jersey Divas program in fall 2020.

Natalia Solano ’22 is considering becoming a teacher after she graduates. For Stenn’s course, she worked with an afterschool program called Jersey Divas that offers dance opportunities for Trenton middle schoolers. For one of her lesson plans, Solano worked with the students on how to bring more emotion into their choreography by creating a story line to accompany their movements. Stenn’s class prepared Solano for the unexpected, which invariably happened when she was teaching in person or on Zoom later in the semester. “I feel more confidence in my abilities now,“ she says.

Over the summer, Solano, who plays cello in the Princeton University Orchestra, volunteered to lead workshops on movement with the Trenton Youth Orchestra, which is also part of the University’s Trenton Arts program. In one exercise, Solano asked the high schoolers to express the beat of a song with different body parts, and each took a turn demonstrating as the others followed. “Everyone was in tune with the music and in tune with each other,” she says. “People had different styles of showing the beat, and they became more familiar with how each person expressed themselves. They learned something about each other.”

This semester, the students in Stenn’s course are teaching hip-hop and ballet remotely to youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania and mentoring third and fourth graders in New York City in one-on-one sessions. Stenn hopes that the course gives these students and the alumni who have taken it “a sense of joy and enthusiasm to go out into the world and, through the lens of dance, really reach children. Each child has a voice, and if that voice is heard, they can shine.”

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