For #artsedweek, we’ve asked some of our Arts Education Program grantees to tell us more about how they bring literature, music, visual art, architecture, theater, film, and dance to students throughout the state. Check our blog or Facebook through September 16 to find out what they had to say!
To learn more about how students are learning a vital variety of skills through dance, we spoke with Ellen Sinopoli, Artistic Director of the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company.
In its 25th Anniversary Season, the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company (ESDC) is a professional modern dance company based in New York State’s Capital Region and has been the resident company at The Egg in Albany for 24 years. ESDC presents the choreography of Artistic Director Ellen Sinopoli. Its commitment to “create, collaborate, educate and partner” remains in the forefront as it shares its work with diverse audiences through concerts, showcases, residencies, and workshops. Its performances at professional, regional, and college theatres as well as community centers, art galleries, public playgrounds, public schools, libraries, museums, historic sites and storefronts include venues in MA, NYC and throughout 17 New York State counties.
How and why is arts education is such an important part of what you do?
The company is now in its 26th year. Initially the primary component was concert dance and we always did a small amount of arts education. Now, we have reached a point in our development that the company is three-pronged: concert, arts-in-education, and outreach. That includes working with special needs populations. I really believe that it’s the responsibility of artists to introduce dance to people and one of the ways to do that is through arts in education. Most schools do not have any instructors in dance on their faculty, especially elementary schools. The only way for most schools to have children experience dance is to bring people in.
What I feel very strongly about is the quality of work brought into schools and what it is we’re trying to accomplish. We have multiple programs, we can design residencies for schools, sometimes one day and some multi-year. We try to really reach out to meet the individual needs of a particular school. We have a strong mentoring program within our own company, we have lead teaching artists and assisting teaching artists, who usually go through a two-year training process. It’s really about developing an aesthetic appreciation versus teaching a dance class. Often students will do a type of informal showing but it’s not a performance per se. We want them to be able to demonstrate their knowledge to other students in their school.
Are there certain ways dance uniquely influences students’ personal and educational growth?
People learn in very different ways. The dance experience is a visceral one, a muscular one, and an intellectual one, but I also feel it’s a very visual one. A lot of people are visual learners. An extensive number of times teachers have said “this student was so creative during the dance class. I’m never able to get him to sit still.” It’s about giving him the tools to do that. I have great difficulty reading instructions, and math and science do not come easily to me. Being able to learn in another way has been very helpful to me.
We created a relationship with a University at Albany physics professor called Choreophysics, looking at physics from a movement orientation. We present that to high school science kids and do movement workshops related to the performance they have seen us do. That physicist approached us because students learn differently through dance. To look at a law on paper versus experiencing it from a muscular sense is a very different learning experience. There are multiple layers in the process of learning.
You have a story hour program, which seems like an unusual way to teach dance. How did that get started?
We would get calls from public libraries because they would have story hours. Over the years, I have found books that are not necessarily dance books, but we can move to help tell a story so they experience the story not just through hearing it but through movement. Right now we have probably more than 50 books my dancers choose from. Usually that’s the range of preschool through 2nd grade. We use it as a literacy tool as well. I use a book called The Human Alphabet by Pilobolus. They do the whole alphabet and then create images of things related to the particular letter. B is a butterfly shape. We have them by themselves or with partners or with grownups joining them at the library or in the park, making letters with their bodies. They’re going to remember that. In a school, the alphabet is on the wall, and we can point and have them make that letter and then make a shape that begins with that letter, or make the first letter of their first name. It’s enhancing their literacy component.
We are just finishing part of a residency we have NYSCA funding for [where] we work with third graders and expand on lessons about different countries they’re learning about. One is Norway, so we meet with the teachers, they give us vocabulary they are working on, and we come up with the movement vocabulary we want for the elements of dance. There’s a whole section on fjords. A glaciers move slowly towards the mountains and when it reaches the mountains it slowly carves out the mountains. The glacier retreats back into the sea and the sea fills the carved out space between the mountains, creating a fjord. The children become the glaciers (slow, cracking movement), the sea (fluid, curvy, low-level movement), mountains (pointy, jagged, angular shapes).
Our workshops might have a curricular or literacy base but they all are introducing children to the concept of creating movement, specifically modern dance. Children gain the ability to make creative choices as they choose from their “toolkit” of knowledge about the elements of dance that we have helped them learn and experience. They can be learning about fjords or the Japanese subway system or the Brazilian rainforest. It really does expand their sense of understanding through movement.
What do you think are the most significant challenges facing arts education programs today?
A lot of that is monetary. Also, very few schools have an Arts-In-Education coordinator. Some do but that may be also a teacher, there’s not always a separate position for this. It could be a PTA member or a principal that understands the importance of bringing arts into schools. There’s no codified approach. That’s one of the reasons we’re brought in for a dance component. Having the budget to bring companies in and having the willingness to plan for what a residency entails, [is a lot to ask when] teachers are overloaded as it is as far as time constraints. You have to be very careful how you ask teachers to take on this extra load. They need to understand what the advantage to the students is going to be. If they come to our workshops they’re being taken away from something in the classroom. Teachers have to be willing to make that sacrifice. We require the teacher stay with us and we try to incorporate them into the process as much as possible. That’s a big commitment on the part of the teacher and the school. It’s important to us to remind them why arts are vital to keep in schools. We want to develop an entire person and the arts need to be part of that.
What do you find most inspiring about your work with students?
Particularly in our society, the sense of movement is not necessarily encouraged aesthetically. It might be from a sports perspective, but culturally, it’s okay for people to do music, to act, but it’s not always okay for people to dance. We try to have students discover just how exciting that can be, and enjoyable and rewarding. They might see us perform so they can see where this all goes at some point – it doesn’t always just stay in the classroom or the studio. Every time we do a performance for a school, I have dancers introduce themselves. They come from very different places in the U.S. or abroad, they have college, even masters’ educations. I think it’s very important for students to understand that this is a possible, legitimate profession. We’re not trying to train people to become professionals, but we do want them to know that exists as part of our culture.