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COMMENTARY: Unlikely children change their lives through dance education

Five years ago, a group of middle school boys from the Alternative Learning for Behavior and Attitude (ALBA) School reluctantly entered the Malashock Dance studio, at Dance Place San Diego in Liberty Station, with arms folded, hoodies pulled up, and their bodies practically pressed against the walls.

I could sense their discomfort permeating the empty space as I struggled to guide them into a simple circle for introductions. It was my first experience working with at-risk youth, and I was as terrified of the unknown as they were. They didn’t want to dance, and they knew I couldn’t make them. All I could do was remain relentlessly positive and make each one of them feel safe enough to take a risk.

Dance is vulnerable, and it was immediately evident my job was to build a foundation of trust that would serve them long after they complete their dance classes. By the end of the last class, I wanted to see extraordinary people, not necessarily extraordinary dancers.

After 12 weeks together, the boys’ school attendance had risen to nearly 99 percent on the days they participated in the program, and the space was now filled with positive energy. What happened during those 12 weeks was nothing short of magical. It wasn’t the steps, music or lesson plans that facilitated this transformative experience. It wasn’t a finished product with polished technical skill that made them feel successful. It was the process of creating something together, in a safe space, which allowed students to see themselves, their peers and possibly the world around them in a new way.

Malashock Dance, an innovative modern dance company celebrating its 25th season this year, serves more than 2,000 of the most unlikely candidates for dance each year through community partnerships and in-school residencies. A passionate group of Teaching Artists from Malashock Dance works with individuals with disabilities, at-risk youth and students who participate in dance classes at their school.

On the “front lines” of arts education, Teaching Artists see hidden talents surface in shy children; facilitate enthusiastic and creative problem-solving between typically defiant children; and celebrate moments of powerful self-discovery in students with low self-esteem.

Dance education can illuminate powerful connections between academics and art because students are challenged to organize their thoughts through movement. When students have the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom to the creation of a dance, they are immediately engaged in a new way of learning. Their brain is getting a workout simultaneously with their bodies. While they are creating, innovating, questioning and communicating what they have learned, they are also laughing, cooperating, listening and having fun.

Dance is the most underrepresented art form in schools, yet it shares many of the same benefits as physical education, theater, music, English language arts and mathematics. There is no set-up or clean-up of materials. The only ingredients needed are an empty space, physical presence and an open mind. When students are exposed to new ways of expressing themselves they become self-aware and confident. These intangible benefits cannot be measured by standardized tests, but does that make them less valuable?

In San Diego’s diverse population, dance is a tool for learning that cuts through racial, cultural, social and economic barriers. It is a part of the human experience that has been shared by all cultures. Dancing is a natural way of bringing people together to celebrate cultural appreciation and awareness. When the content of this art form is generated from a genuine place, it creates a unique perspective that can be shared with people who may not even speak the same language.

If you want to see arts in the classroom, encourage your school to engage in community partnerships, such as the one Malashock Dance offers, with the myriad of non-profit organizations that provide quality programs. I encourage you to advocate for the development of your whole child, not just the skills that can are measured on his or her standardized test.

Molly Puryear has been the Education Director at Malashock Dance for four years. Each new experience she shares with children is insightful, moving, and satisfying, and she hopes to change the lives of many more children in the San Diego area. Learn more HERE.