In the 17th century, gentlemen used dance as a means of physical conditioning to improve their fencing, horse-riding and hunting prowess. In the 20th century, sweaty-palmed boys and girls do-si-doe’d in gym class to learn the social graces doled out by annual units of square dancing. In the 21st century, molecular biologists hire dancers to perform as atoms for demonstrations in lecture halls on the behavior of the basic building blocks of matter.
Humans have always found new ways to incorporate dance. Its latest use – dance as an educational tool – relies on the theory that people can learn their lessons in math, science and other academic subjects through artistic movement.
“We all learn in many different ways, and as we begin to understand that in a more profound way, that’s where dance will start to be recognized as being really integral,” said Dr. Donna Dragon, an associate professor and dance education coordinator at UNC Charlotte.
Dragon is one of the movement’s biggest local champions. Her efforts to introduce dance as not just entertainment or exercise, but as an educational method, have slowly begun to pay off in public schools.
A two-year pilot project she directed in the Cabarrus County School system has resulted in a new dance program in one of its middle schools – the first such program in recent years to return dance classes to the district.
Districts that already employ dance teachers, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, have worked to avoid cuts to its dance department. CMS currently staffs 650 teachers in dance, music, visual arts and theater arts.
“We’ve been really fortunate that we’ve not lost teachers and that we’ve actually gained positions,” said Dragon, of the public school systems’ embrace of dance education.
Further encouragement that dance is making its way back into classrooms is the development of a national dance teacher assessment, for which Dragon is one of the eight experts chosen to draft. Praxis exams are required for teacher licensure in most states, including North Carolina, and in subjects ranging from biology to Latin.
The dance teacher exam, to be given for the first time in December 2013, will combine a mix of dance theory, dance history and general pedagogy.
Praxis exams not only ensure that teachers have mastered their subject’s knowledge, but also that all universities offering dance education programs are providing the same necessary content.
“There’s great variability,” said Dragon. “Our program (at UNCC) varies greatly from what’s happening at Greensboro (UNCG). We’re trying to bring a sense of unity around what is valued.”
UNCC’s Dance Education department graduates seven to nine students each year.
In recent years, national standards have shuffled the arts up to the front row – a place often only with enough seats for academic subjects like English, social studies, math and science.
The change has been a huge leap for a subject that has always struggled to find its spot in public education in the first place.
Until recent decades, dance was marketed as an element of physical education, mixed between units of baseball and basketball.
In the 1960s, when traditional education was being challenged, dance began to find its home with the fine arts. Even then, though, federal government left the decision of how important art was up to the states, which left it up to the school districts, which often left the value of art up to each individual school’s principal. Often, that meant dance classes were cut.
“It’s a struggle within our culture to see it as integrated and not as something that’s an extra, an add-on,” said Dragon.
“When it becomes ‘This is necessary for children,’ then it’s not going to matter what someone at the top thinks. We’re moving in that direction.”