Partnering University Dance and the Schools

by Jill Beck

In 1994, the Dance Division at Southern Methodist University moved to establish collaborative partnerships with schools in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. The impetus was a desire to help remedy the isolation of the university from the schools in its community, and to devise an innovative model that would achieve some of the national goals for Arts in Education. With the assistance of funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), a three-year program was initiated that linked the close study and practice of dances to inquiry in areas of social studies and humanities, including history, cultural studies, geography, and gender.

The project began with the selection of six population groups that are important to the metroplex population, three of which would be the focus of research and pedagogical design in Year 1: Mexican, Cajun-French, and Vietnamese. Experts in dances from each culture were invited to SMU for intensive workshops with undergraduate and graduate students. The undergraduates, working in teams with faculty or graduate students, researched contextual information about the dances. What societal classes danced? Why and where were the dances performed? What currents of international influence do the dances reflect? What beliefs or values do they reveal or express? In answering such questions, university students were engaged both in gathering information related to the dances they were practicing, and in analyzing the dances to find points of intersection between that information and its artistic/cultural expression.

Initial partnerships with the schools were formed to share the materials and approach of the international study units. Some of our initiatives welcomed children and teachers to SMU, and others launched SMU students and faculty into the schools. Children's Workshops were held at the university, for groups of 50-200 children, with a focus on perceiving and discussing meaning in performed art. Deaf and hearing-impaired students represented about 25 percent of the participants in the Workshops, and they excelled in "reading" the visual language of dance, in interpreting meanings of complex sequences of physical expression. SMU professors worked with teachers to develop preview guides and questions that teachers could use to prepare students for the Workshops, and review assignments (such as writing the story of a dance) as follow-ups to the visits.

In another type of link, after-school programs were formulated with area teachers for grades 4-6 and taught by undergraduate and graduate student teams. These programs integrated dance study with practice in abilities measured on the yearly TAAS tests (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) and endorsed in the National Standards for Arts in Education. For example, children read maps to locate places and patterns of human migration; they learned to apply such spatial concepts as counter clockwise, asymmetrical, and the four cardinal directions. They memorized existing dances, created original dances embedded with their own intent and meaning, and documented dances in the symbolic language of dance notation. They performed for their families and teachers, becoming increasingly comfortable with speaking, explaining, dancing and problem solving in public.

Teachers noticed positive changes in some stdents' self esteem, and in their readiness to participate more actively in their other classes. Principals were pleased that the new dance program demonstrated awareness of important existing educational goals, and were impressed by the facility of dance in stimulating inquiry in a wide array of subjects. This feedback will be crucial to the SMU dance program's future in the schools; in the coming years dance is projected to become an element of regular social studies classes. Dance in the schools will of course be less likely to be cut when budgets become tight, if it is integrated in mandated curriculum.

Graduate students and faculty at SMU also turned their attention to the development of computer software that would preserve on multimedia CD-ROM all the research they had done on the context of the different dances, yet in a format that would allow future students to continue to work creatively. We have settled on an interactive software design that has two main approaches to learning. The Main Road is a narrative spine that takes the learner through the history and cultural background of the dance under study, linking it to important information in the social sciences and humanities. Within the Main Road, key words are underlined. When clicked on with the computer mouse, these words open up various resources in text, graphics, dance notation, audio, maps, slides, and video. The data within the Main Road are beneficial to learners who prefer linear learning but may wish to diverge from a strict path of study to fulfill their curiosity in particular areas. The second environment accessed by the interface is the Resource Room. A collection of "bins" of audio, visual, and text materials, it is a vehicle for free exploration of any topic on which the study unit touches. A key concepts index facilitates the location of sources of information. A workbench area enables students to compile and organize their own portfolios of materials on a given theme. In consultation with teachers, one of the important tasks in Year 2 will be adapting the CD units for students of different ages.

The FIPSE project has proven the applicability of much university research to K-12 curricula. It also demonstrates the appropriateness of the university community turning its attention to greater community problem solving, the rewards for which have been a renewed excitement about learning and a pride in education as a vehicle for social progress. The SMU/Dallas/Fort Worth arts partnership is an important step in envisioning and implementing the vertical integration of education.


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