As soon as Donna Dragon walked into Room 326 at Rocky River Elementary School, Sue Smith’s second-grade class bubbled with soft gasps of excitement, shy smiles and a few timid waves sent in Dragon’s direction.
Dragon, an associate professor and dance education coordinator at UNC Charlotte, knows each of them well. The success of the pilot program she launched at the school last semester has only grown, and the children know her presence means they soon will be up on their feet and learning their lessons through dance.
Studies show students of any age benefit when a dance education program is in place in their schools. Reading, language and math skills improve. Cognitive and social skills are sharpened. Motivation to learn increases.
A 2005 report from the College Board said students with four or more years of involvement in an arts program scored on average 58 points higher on the verbal section and 38 points higher on the math section of the SAT than those with little or no participation in the arts.
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Yet most public school districts do not have dance education programs. A 2004 study published by the University of Florida found that 43 percent of elementary schools and 14 percent of secondary schools had regular dance programs.
While the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District does employ dance educators in several schools, surrounding districts, such as Cabarrus County, do not.
Cabarrus County high schools do offer musical theater courses that include dance, and many schools in the district have drama clubs that incorporate dance as well. The school system also partners with the Cabarrus Arts Council to bring theater and dance presentations to students year-round.
“Nationally, most do not,” Dragon said of the number of schools without dance education instructors. “But it is a child’s right. According to the national standards, … all children have the right to have dance, music, art and theater in the schools. It’s up to each individual state whether they follow that, and then it’s up to each individual school district, then each principal.”
Millard Lamm, principal at Rocky River Elementary School, agreed to the pilot program last semester. For many children, he said, it is a first introduction to the creative arts.
“A large number of our students don’t have these kinds of opportunities outside of school,” Lamm said. “I wanted to open them up to the world of creativity and how they can express themselves in positive ways.”
Lamm said the program has given educators another tool when teaching kids their lessons.
“This is an opportunity for our students to be up and active, yet still tie it into the content that they are learning,” he said. “I’ve been very happy that the teachers see there are ways to provide instruction that (are) not just paper and pencil.”
In a lesson on fairy tales, Dragon’s student teachers, Carly Blevins, 21, and Deborah Swindell, 20, have the children acting out with their bodies the vocabulary words Smith has assigned to describe the seven dwarfs from “Snow White.”
Depending on which dwarf they were, the students crossed their arms and stomped around with a grumpy scowl or looked down at the floor in a bashful gaze.
“When we are learning, we don’t just learn through our minds. We learn through our bodies as well,” said Dragon. “It connects right brain and left brain. It creates that kind of integration.”
Both Dragon and Lamm would like to see the program continue and spread to other schools.
“We plan to keep it going. I’m hoping I’ll be able to create a model to teach other teachers how to use it,” said Dragon. “My idea is that these will be skills that are long-lasting, that they can incorporate into their classrooms.”