Family Dance Effects: Community v. Institution

Posted on 10/31/12

Southern California dance educator, Ruth T, my coachee, colleague and friend, is passionate about dance and social justice.  At the National Dance Education Organization’s conference last week in Los Angeles, Ruth participated in a panel I curated of professionals working to bring family dance to their communities.  The panelists work in a wide range of settings—public K-5 classrooms, private studios, social service agencies and the child welfare system–with constituents that include migrant families, seniors with Parkinson’s, gang members with children, immigrants and families in the dependency system.  Each person spoke with heart about her experience being inspired by Luna’s MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) program, her training in how to teach parent-child dance, her early attempts to pilot small programs, lessons she learned, and stories from practice.  The take-away message for me, the moderator, was that the work was as beneficial for the panelists as it was for the constituents with whom they worked.

Ruth offered a series of family dance classes at one of the elementary schools she works with as a dance specialist for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).  She felt that parents who often work 2-3 jobs each day have little time to play with their children, that school could be a place for community-building, and that dancing with their children might be a motivator for parents to participate in the school, creating a bridge to other parent activities.  “Teachers always complain that the Latino families never participate in school events—they don’t show up,” Ruth says.  She continues to describe that as a Mexican immigrant herself she was brought up to revere teachers and be a little intimidated by them.  Ruth speculates that parents are not encouraged to come to school if they expect that they will be blamed for their child’s misbehavior.  Offering family dance, Ruth believed, would be fun for parents and children and, perhaps, increase their comfort level at the school.

The first 6-week session of classes was a great success.  Ruth taught relationship-based curriculum in Spanish.  She offered classes first thing in the morning and found that many parents chose to go to work an hour late so that they could have this precious time with their children.  Families came in all sizes—sometimes spanning several generations.  Ruth states, “growing up in Mexico, I never expected to see fathers holding their sons and swaying.”  As expected, families opened up, sharing their challenges outside of the dance class and their fears for their children.

While Ruth plans to continue offering these classes at the schools she teaches, she was worried when approached by an administrator of LAUSD asking her to help “train” her colleagues to teach the classes themselves.  She told me that the administrator wanted every dance teacher in the district to offer these classes as part of an extended program and was willing to set up a one-time, 1.5 hour training to do so.  Ruth declined the offer.  She told me, “I’m still learning about relationship-based dance myself and I’ve been studying this work for three years.  Plus, not all dance teachers want to teach family dance.  Plus, not all schools want this.  It won’t work.”  At the same time, I sensed that Ruth felt bad that she couldn’t just say yes and that she wanted me to validate that it was alright that she did not.  While I think she is ready to mentor other teachers, I could fully support her instincts about this offer.

In my role, shaping our Building Cultures of Dance initiative, I am working hard to identify the strategies that will allow communities and organizations to build sustainable, responsive dance programs that meet their goals.  Taking a successful 6-week pilot and immediately scaling it up without proper training, resources, desire or needs assessment is definitely NOT the way to do so.  But then again, I reflect on how many times Nancy & I have written proposals for our programs with the spoken or unspoken expectation that these programs should be ‘scale-able’.  What does scale mean when we’re talking about human interaction, relationship and embodied knowing?  There are practices that I do think are universal and easy to implement on a grand scale; namely, having authentic conversations about the use of space, expectations and working definitions.  But most effective teaching practices and program implementation strategies require TIME—time for inquiry, reflection, conversation, disagreement, consensus and negotiation.  And, in many institutions, TIME is not used efficiently nor toward a greater goal.  People often perceive it as very limited and so do not take time needed for planning and reflection and, then waste time re-inventing wheels.

I would LOVE the opportunity to work with an organization like LAUSD to explore what family dance might look like integrated throughout the district as a valued aspect of the curriculum and community-building.  Such a Building Cultures of Dance project could be magnificent as there is so much need for involving parents in the public school process.  To do so honorably, however, would require time, training and expertise.  It would require program design occurring in stages with built in formative assessment along the way.  It would require a cultural competency that would ask some difficult questions and challenges assumptions about “who these parents are” – is an institution like a school district ready to take time for such a process?


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