Dance curriculumThe Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) makes for a brighter future by broadening the perspective about what it takes to educate a child in today’s schools.  That expansion bodes well for education which has unintentionally languished through the years of the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB).  Now that ESSA repeals the narrowly-focused NCLB, the value of arts education is re-emphasized.

Dance education is particularly vulnerable during this transition.  Here is why.

  • To add dance just for the sake of diversifying the curriculum is insufficient.
  • To create performance-driven dance programs narrows the curriculum by allocating too many educational minutes to performance preparation. While they are entertaining, overemphasis on showcases diminishes the key content and experiences that afford a complete education in all artistic processes.
  • The goal of ESSA is to provide a well-rounded education which includes dance. But unless dance re-envisions what a well-rounded dance education means, dance will become nothing more than a satellite to the core curriculum.  Its performance-driven emphasis will prevent it from achieving the criteria that would make it educational.  That would be a shame for everyone.

Dance literacyNow is the opportune time to redesign the old 20th century model of performance-driven dance in K-12 in favor of a well-rounded education in dance.  To expand the traditional one-dimensional “steps and styles” emphasis into an inclusive multi-dimensional emphasis is necessary if dance is to achieve educational integrity.  Expansion of our horizons for the sake of a broader dance literacy will require a systemic change

  • in how dance specialists are prepared as undergraduates in higher education,
  • in how dance is taught in the schools,
  • in how dance specialists are in-serviced, and
  • in how administrators view the role of dance in K-12 education and articulate their expectations to the community.

I invite you to read “The Value of a Well-Rounded Education” by USDOE Secretary John B. King Jr. (April 2016) which blows the doors off the narrow educational emphasis of the past and expresses the broader, brighter future that ESSA plans to usher in.  After you read his remarks, consider how ESSA also offers the same mandate for dance education.  ESSA’s well-rounded philosophy exclaims that Dance can no long afford to overemphasize one aspect of the curriculum—be it artistic process or dance style–because an in-depth focus on one automatically excludes the breadth and depth provided by the whole discipline.  This paradigm shift empowers us to venture into deeper waters, to learn how to do what we do more effectively and with a bigger purpose.  We must learn to underpin skill development with the concepts that drive them just as all educational disciplines do.  We must instill the skills to effectively enroll as critic, choreographer, historian, anthropologist, and performer if we are to teach a complete curriculum.  We must increase dance’s educational value by broadening our content and instruction as we move away from “teaching dance” toward holistically “educating in and through dance.”

Literacy through danceWe could paraphrase Secretary King’s comments relative to narrowing the curriculum in dance education this way:  Performing literacy is surely necessary for success in dance careers — but it is surely not sufficient in education.  For students to have a “well-rounded education in dance” requires the driving forces in its artistic processes be mastered.  To be responsible in K-12 education, dance must “educate” –not “inform” about steps and styles or “entertain” with mainstage showcases.  It must cultivate literate students who place performance in the broader context of the discipline so as to understand the important role dance plays in the world rather than to be self-centered consumers of dance.  Such a broad education is not the right of the few but the right of all.

Can dance survive in Education otherwise? 

Why not let ESSA be the impetus for a well-rounded education in dance? Why not abandon the limitations of the old “transfer of dancing skills” model devoid of conceptual understanding?  If we focus less on teaching and more on education, dance may yet make the educational impact it is truly capable of.

This is a journey worth taking.

Brenda Pugh McCutchen, MFA Dance, is author of Teaching Dance as Art in Education (Human Kinetics, 2006).  She creates integrated 6DC educational dance resources for use in higher education for teacher preparation and in the schools by certified dance specialists.  Among numerous roles, she is or has been dance professor, state certified K-8 educator, state certified K-12 dance educator, modern dance choreographer/performer, choreographer-in-residence, and state level arts education administrator.  She served on the NDEO Board of Directors from 2003-2006.  She is owner and director of Dance Curriculum Designs, Columbia, SC, USA.