2024 Dance Teacher Award Honoree Dr. Diane Duggan Teaches From the Heart
July 1, 2024

Dr. Diane Duggan teaches dance, but dance isn’t really what she teaches. “You have a 12-page lesson plan, but the lesson plan is not the point,” she says. “You have to observe what the students are actually doing with the material. Then it has to come from love.” 

Over her five-decade career teaching in New York City’s highly restrictive special education schools, a development center, and public programs, Dr. Duggan has made it safe for traumatized children to feel emotional connection, nurtured artistic pride in kids who were shut out of mainstream education, and created spaces where young people with behavioral challenges discover the good in themselves.

“My job description was to be a mirror,” says Dr. Duggan. “The children already knew all the bad stuff about them—that’s how they got into these settings. I would mirror their goodness.” In her 30 years as a professor in NYU’s Dance Education program, she has empowered generations of aspiring dance educators to do the same.

Dr. Duggan studied ballet, jazz, and modern while growing up in Upper Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood, then earned her MS in dance therapy at Hunter College in 1973. Her path was clear from her first job, at Queens State School, where she taught children with severe intellectual and physical disabilities, most of whom were wheeled into the studio on carts. “They couldn’t even keep their heads up,” she recalls. There she learned about neuro-developmental therapy and the mind–body connection—and got hard evidence of the transformative potential of music and dance. “My physical therapy colleagues sometimes had a hard time getting the children to do anything, but in my class, they responded to singing and dancing.” 

Dr. Duggan teaching a circle dance at 92NY's 2020 dan Intensive. Photo courtesy Dr. Duggan.

Dr. Duggan earned a PhD in school and child psychology from NYU in 1998, then helped develop the New York City Department of Education’s programs in Positive Behavior Support and Functional Behavior Assessment. She’s been on the faculty of the 92nd Street Y Dance Education and Dance Therapy Programs since 2006 and continues to teach at NYU, where her one-time graduate student Deborah Damast heads the program.

“Seeing her apply this really deep knowledge in such an accessible and humane way was eye-opening,” says Damast. “Diane has built up our field with not only tools but an approach founded in trust, kindness, and perseverance. She never gives up on the kids. The rest of society has given up on them. That was a profound realization that I utilize all the time.”

Dr. Duggan never gave up her own movement practice, either, studying social dance, Latin styles, and Afro-Haitian dance with Jean-Léon Destiné. Her first class with Destiné was a struggle that led to a turning point. “I didn’t think I would last,” she recalls. “I gave up trying so hard, and in that moment, I felt the drum. All of a sudden, I felt like I was in an ocean, moving with the other people. Rhythm became the language that I used when I was working with teenagers on the Lower East Side and in the Bronx—I had a common vocabulary with the students.”

Those pieces came together dramatically in 1979 when the New York City Department of Education hired her to work with teenagers classified as neurologically impaired and emotionally handicapped. “They didn’t read, although they were in high school, and they fought a lot. I tried to work with them using my tools, and I could see right away it wasn’t going to work.”

Dr. Duggan teaching at DEL. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Dr. Duggan.

With her formal tools—her lesson plan—falling short, she did what any great dancer does: improvise. “I had been taught to be in a Chacian circle, but you’re really exposed in a circle. Nobody wanted to do something new feeling exposed,” she recalls. So she reorganized the students into straight lines, which made them feel safe to try dancing. Meeting—and respecting—students where they are is the foundation of her work. “It wasn’t, ‘I’m gonna teach you all this dancy stuff that I know’—I made it about their dance. When they recognized a step, I gave it a name, and then it had dignity and we used it.” She choreographed to music they loved, from Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” to Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A…” and helped a class achieve their dream of performing at the Apollo Theater. She validated their feelings while providing “benevolent structure,” such as insisting on daily pliés and tendus. “They were really scared, so we had to structure it so they would be genuinely successful,” she says. “You have to be able to show them what they can do, because they don’t believe it.”

Dr. Duggan’s teaching of teachers, too, has its own ripple effect. “Every person that comes out of her class is more equipped to be a more humane and understanding teacher who can find the good in a child and make them feel seen and heard,” says Damast. The work is equally fulfilling for Dr. Duggan. “I often say that if I was a police officer, I would have been dead a long time ago because I see the goodness in people,” she says. “But to be a special educator? It is the best thing.”

Get your tickets now for the 2024 Dance Teacher Live Workshops & Awards, taking place on Thursday, August 1, 2024 from 9 am–3 pm at The Ailey Studios located in New York City. We can’t wait to see you there!

To read about other 2024 DT awardees, click here.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 2, 2024, to rectify that Deborah Damast was a graduate student of Dr. Diane Duggan and on July 12, 2024 to clarify that the NYU’s Dance Education program trains dance educators.

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