Consider dance educator, AG*. Like many dance educators in California, a state without a teaching credential in the art form, AG is super educated and qualified for a career as a dance educator. With a lifetime of training and performing in dance, in a variety of dance forms, she pursued a teaching credential with a minor in dance as her undergraduate studies. Upon graduation, AG was excited to teach in what was then called inner-city communities. She wanted to provide access to dance to children who lived in communities where expression through the arts was not readily available. AG discovered that her teaching degree did not allow her to teach dance in public schools so she enrolled in San Francisco State’s Physical Education with Dance Emphasis program—the only path to becoming a qualified dance teacher in Northern California. AG took her degrees “on the road” in search of a dance teaching job, only to discover that few existed. She had completed her student teaching with legendary Marcia Singhman at Berkeley High School and thus had a very high bar in mind for what a quality dance program should be. Finally able to procure a teaching job at a public middle school, she slowly and tenaciously built a dance program over seven years. The first wave of arts slashing in the early 1990’s shut down that program, yet AG continued teaching visual art there while seeking another opportunity for dance. When the newly re-organized public Arts Academy** opened, a dream opportunity awaited for AG.
Over the course of another seven years, AG developed another exemplary program, this time at Arts Academy. Students living in a community with high dropout rates, poverty and violence, found sanctuary in the dance studio. Grounded in a strong, standards-based approach, AG’s dance curriculum allows teens to craft their emotional experiences into works of art, study the technical styles of a wide-range of modern dance and cultural dance forms and collaborate with artists in other media. She provided opportunities for her students to perform their original works outside of the confines on the annual high school performance. Her students presented at local dance festivals and at the National Dance Education Organization’s annual conference. They formed the first California chapter of the National Dance Honor Society and each year since, AG’s students met the rigorous requirements. Unfortunately in 2011, due to the state budget crisis, Arts Academy merged with three other small schools to become one large high school. AG kept her district tenure by moving to a local elementary school to teach visual art again, while fulfilling her dedication to dance education through part-time teaching at local charter schools. Because she thirsts for putting her massive talent bank to use to create a viable, thriving dance education program and is passionate about returning full time to dance education, AG is once again looking for an opportunity to create a dance program.
The comprehensive study, An Unfinished Canvas[i], reported that despite legislating the California Visual and Performing Arts Standards in 2001 and publication of both the standards and companion framework, little dance and theater has been offered to California students. And, as in all art forms, what is being offered continues to disproportionately underserve low-income and students of color. The second publication of An Unfinished Canvas reports the challenges of a lack of credential in dance and the inconsistent and sometimes absent teacher preparation and professional development in the arts.[ii] In total, the 3 publications of this study reveal what we in the field know from firsthand experience—the lack of understanding of what standards-based dance is, combined with inadequate teacher preparation and mixed messages about who should be teaching dance, results in a message to communities that dance is not valued. Despite massive evidence to the contrary about the value of all four arts disciplines to a comprehensive education, the national focus on eradicating obesity and extensive neuroscience research reporting the importance of movement to learning, public school district superintendents and school boards continue to make decisions that underfund the arts generally and provide little or no resources to dance. Even when a dance program exists, decision makers rarely think it through and make program decisions based on very narrow understanding of what a dance program requires for success. The latest California Department of Education data shows that not much has shifted since the publication of An Unfinished Canvas despite local initiatives to increase access to all arts education for every student every day. While Luna and our constituents cannot tilt the political will in California toward dance education, we recognize some of the forces that continue the status quo. In a “catch-22 cycle” dance programs are underfunded and often merged into larger arts education initiatives, often run by a teacher-leader in a discipline other than dance. Then, with too few resources, Visual and Performing Arts leaders focus attention on their own strengths so the historically stronger art forms–art and music–continue to (relatively) thrive while dance and theater become an afterthought. Dance educators often do not rise to positions of leadership within the state department of education in part because their programs are not funded continuously enough to reach the “radar” of the general population.
I have dedicated a career to asking the tough questions about access and equity in dance delivery, showcasing and increasing the rigor of creativity and risk-taking, improving teaching practice and partnering with others to build cultures of dance. Now, as I enter the final stretch of my active working years, it feels as if I, along with my colleagues in the field, have been running very fast on a proverbial hamster wheel. To paraphrase one of the most inspirational leaders of our time, “the road to freedom is very long but always arcs up.” In the field of dance education, that arc is often difficult to see.
**generic school name
[i] Center for Education Policy, SRI International (2007) An Unfinished Canvas: Arts Education in California, Taking Stock of Policies and Practices (commissioned by William & Flora Hewlett Foundation).
[ii] Center for Education Policy, SRI International (2008) An Unfinished Canvas: Teacher Preparation, Instructional Delivery and Professional Development in the Arts (commissioned by William & Flora Hewlett Foundation).