by Mary Gulivindala
I am a dance teacher and Chestnut Hill resident. I teach dance for a program called Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership. This organization brings the arts — dance, music, art, theater etc. — to the inner city public school system in Philly through teachers like myself known as artists in residence.
I teach middle school, 5th through 8th grade. The school where I teach is in an African American neighborhood in Germantown that is underemployed, impoverished, run down, drug-populated, dangerous and crime-ridden.
My job is to expose the students to the different genres of dance. Ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, tap, African, Latin and whatever else I have up my tutu. Not one of these kids had ever taken a dance class!
There is no studio and no mirrors or ballet barres. The school can’t even afford water bottles. We do have a stage in the auditorium with a one-speaker audio system. They have stage lighting, but they can’t afford lightbulbs.
To say that my job is challenging is an understatement. These kids are craving attention. They can’t listen, are over-stimulated, rowdy, disruptive, and to top it off, throw in some ‘tween hormones!
And I love them.
I knew starting the first day of class that I would have to win them over, so I started out with hip-hop. I brought a “slamming” playlist that had them thinking, “Who is this old white lady?” I’m 48, current, hip and relevant. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to teach in this environment; that’s for sure.
I gave them homework and told them to write down three songs they liked, and I would listen to them and use them if they met my approval. Well, no way, Jose! The song choices they brought will never play in my class. I don’t think some of the kids even understand the content (sex, drugs, hustling, gang-banging), but they might. I know they like the beat of the music.
We are three months into the program. I have taught them a complete medium level warm-up (that they cannot do correctly), but they have it memorized, and they do try. I knew at the end of the year we would have to put on a performance, so of course on day one I started teaching them choreography for our number. I had no idea if and when they would be able to do it. They had it down in six weeks, to the best of their ability, memorized.
These kids have a lot of obstacles in their lives, like walking home in the dark. If they don’t have someone to walk home with, they’ll have no dance class. Finding transportation, not coming to school, weather, having to take care of a younger sibling or for whatever reason, they are not consistent. They can’t be.
Now we are doing ballet. We had a traditional ballet barre warmup with classical music (I also found some cool Disney piano tunes) by using the auditorium chairs as a barre. Let me tell you: I TRIED. But it just wasn’t happening. There was no joy for any of us. If there is no joy, I won’t teach. So I changed tactics. I decided to combine the jazz warmup they do know and like with added ballet and modern exercises. They are dancing ballet!
I’m always updating my music to keep it fresh. “Please, Ms. G., use YouTube.” Last week I finally surrendered and watched some YouTube video but only after making sure the lyrics were clean.
These kids are into “rapping dance” videos, like back in the old days when we did the Electric Slide or, even before that, the Bunny Hop. They are urban line dances.
They all knew the steps to multiple songs/dances. I decided to let them teach me. I can assure you this is no Bunny Hop. The dances are long, a bit complex if you are over 15 years of age, and the cardio workout is better than any Zumba class this city has to offer. They couldn’t get enough of showing me, and neither could I. We were laughing and free styling and filled with JOY. They wanted to bring me into their world.
Monday it’s back to Ms. G.’s class as usual, a few new songs, with a class of unfocused, over-excited, two-minute attention span kids learning to dance. But is that what I’m teaching them; dance? Yes and no.
The dance element is a small part of the equation here. They are engaged, learning, improving, taking risks and walking a bit taller. I am teaching these kids self-esteem, boundaries, that they matter, they have potential, self-discipline, new skill sets, progress if not perfection, to show up and do your best, to laugh with people, not at people, and most importantly, that they are seen for who they are, the stars that light up the block.
Here is the video of “DJ Lil Man” that we danced to for 20 minutes: https://youtu.be/mcvS_2sTKBc