If you were to walk into Patricia Dye’s dance class, you might notice something unusual: the high number of young men dancing.
“Where I come from, men danced. My first teachers were men,” she says. “To motivate and inspire men to dance, I show them the cultural relevance of dancing.”
Almost 70 percent of the student body at Science Skills Center High School for Science Technology & the Creative Arts in downtown Brooklyn is Black, and more than half is male. With a curriculum rooted in the African diaspora, Dye, born in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, gets her students excited about dance by drawing connections to their cultural heritage. “Dances from the continent and dances from the Caribbean give them meaning,” she says. “I also brought in Dr. Chuck Davis. They were hypnotized!”
Extremely humble with an infectious positivity, Dye built this high school dance department from the ground up and has been changing the lives of its students for 25 years. “Without my community, I would not be the educator that I am today,” she says. “That support includes my elders, mentors, school administrations, community arts organizations and my many dance students.”
Dye is one of four New York City educators whose work is featured in the Emmy-nominated documentary PS Dance! (2015). She designed her student-centered mentoring model to help students develop life and leadership skills by working with one another.
The high expectations she sets for her students are very much on display in the after-school dance company, Jow-Ile-Bailar Dance Company (JIB). Modeled after her own company, Passing Ancestral Knowledge Along Theatre Dance Company (PAKA), JIB is almost exclusively run by students. JIB dancers learn valuable life skills, taking on everything from budgeting, advertising and contracts to photography, music, video, sewing and more. “Kids already have that leadership quality,” she says. “You just have to cultivate it.”
Jow-Ile-Bailar Dance Company (JIB)
Inside the classroom, students become leaders through two of the key components of her pedagogical approach: collaborating on the curriculum, and mentorship between upperclassmen and underclassmen. “I teach the kids that they have options, so I ask, ‘What would you like to do this year?'” she says. “When they ask, ‘Can we do hip hop?’ I say, ‘Not a problem! Which style would you like?’ Yes, they’re going to learn about Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, Petipa and Tchaikovsky, but they have to learn about themselves.”
Dye has a special relationship with each of her students, staying in touch with most of them long past graduation day. “I have children and grandchildren all over the place!” she says, beaming. Hanan Hameen, a student from Dye’s very first year at Science Skills, is now an educator herself and affectionately refers to Dye as “mom.”
“She invested in me as a person to ensure that I was aligned with the correct people and made sound decisions,” Hameen says. “She’s always let Hanan be Hanan while cheering me on and picking me up when I need it.” Hameen remembers that when she was living in the Bronx but teaching in Brooklyn, struggling with the commute due to undiagnosed lupus, Dye opened her home to Hameen so that she could be closer to work.
After 25 years at Science Skills, Dye considers it may be time for retirement. She’s currently pursuing a doctoral degree in dance education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where her focus is to codify the teaching model she uses, so that anyone can adapt it to their classrooms. “It’s a full circle,” she says. “You have to give back.”