Identity Crisis
February 1, 2008


Dance teacher Freddie-Lee Heath was disturbed by something he saw at a recent physical education conference. At the start of one of the sessions, a PE teacher led a warmup—it was, the teacher explained, a dance exercise that he often used in his K–12 classes. As the music played, the teacher pointed to different parts of his body, according to the words of the song. And that was the extent of it. “His feet never moved,” recalls Heath, a classically trained ballet dancer who for the past eight years has taught at Ligon GT Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I thought, ‘Bless your heart for trying, but if this is what you’re doing for dance . . .’”

Mention the topic of PE teachers teaching dance in K–12, and you’re bound to raise the hackles of more than a few dance educators. Indeed, the response ranges from ambivalence to furor. The reason is that many dance educators feel that allowing those who lack qualifications (or in some cases, dance experience of any kind) to teach dance devalues it as an artform and negates their hard-won fight to have it recognized as a core subject in the K–12 curriculum.

It’s not that dance educators don’t want to see dance taught in PE classes; they believe, however, that the discipline also should have its own place in the K–12 curriculum as an artform specifically, and be taught as such only by qualified instructors. In fact, most educators feel that dance has a place in both PE and arts curricula—as long as this distinction remains clear. “Both are very valid,” says National Dance Education Organization Executive Director Jane Bonbright. “And both have very different end results.”

We spoke with dance and PE educators to find out who’s teaching dance in K–12 today, and how it’s being taught. One thing we discovered is that resources and support for dance remain scarce. Theresa Purcell Cone, who has a dual background in dance and phys ed, recently tackled this subject for The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance with Stephen L. Cone, her husband and fellow professor of health and exercise science at Rowan University in New Jersey. They wrote: “Dance, as the artform that is rarely present in the arts curriculum and the activity that is frequently excluded from physical education programs, remains the underdog in either curriculum.”

A Look Back

Dance has historically been aligned with physical education departments, a union born on college campuses. The first dance major, founded in 1926 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, was part of the women’s physical education department (for more, see our cover story, “Dancing Through History,” on page 58). According to NDEO, dance and physical education remained linked in higher education for nearly 50 years, into the early 1970s. At that point, two major shifts occurred: Physical education programs became coeducational and began to focus more on athletics; and the content and pedagogy of dance became more defined.

When the two disciplines diverged, dancers and dance educators worked to carve out a place for dance in higher ed alongside music, visual art and theater, which traditionally had their own identities and were treated, more or less, as academic subjects. As a result, universities began to turn out graduates who not only had technical training but had studied the principles of the artform from academic and artistic perspectives as well.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that public attention turned to dance education in K–12. In 1994, President Clinton’s Goals 2000: Educate America Act gave dance a much-needed leg up by proclaiming it, along with the other artistic disciplines, a core subject. “In essence, it did three things,” Bonbright explains. “It identified dance as an artform, which heretofore it hadn’t been—it was purely under physical education as an activity. Number two, it aligned dance with music, visual arts and theater. And three, it said the arts were equal in importance to other core subjects in the curriculum.”

Next came President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, in 2001. Whatever problems this legislation has created for the arts, it also has provided something of a boost by mandating that all teachers of core subjects must be “highly qualified” in their areas. “It literally means that it is illegal for a teacher in another discipline, whether it be PE or math or science, to teach dance as an artform,” Bonbright says. “They must be a dance specialist.”

Reality Check 

So what makes someone a dance specialist? Essentially, this is a teacher who has an undergraduate and/or graduate degree in dance, along with a special teaching certification determined by the laws of individual states and procured from an accredited higher education institution. Currently, 37 states require certification in dance education (compared to 13 states in the late 1980s). NDEO is working to bring other states on board.

Of course, a state-required certification doesn’t necessarily mean that all schools have certified dance educators teaching dance. “There is a huge discrepancy across the nation, in all artforms, as to what is on the books and what is being implemented in the classrooms,” Bonbright says.

Oftentimes, a “kill two birds” mentality leads administrators to assign dance to a PE teacher. But they may not understand the discipline’s many facets, or the qualifications needed to teach it in its different forms. Many times, the attitude is “Well, it’s just dance,” says Cheryl Adams, a dance teacher at Calvert High School in Prince Frederick, Maryland. If the instructor doesn’t have a proper background in movement, the result is often a Frankenstein monster of a class, cobbled together with whatever dance knowledge a teacher may have. Bonbright recalls visiting a performing arts high school where the dance teacher, a former coach, had once taken a salsa course, “and that’s all he was teaching for the dance curriculum. At another high school, the dance teacher was getting hip hop off the web.”

“Many times, the PE teacher is given the dance class because it’s a movement class, but that teacher is not schooled in any kind of dance,” adds Adams. “I think it’s a problem when administrators don’t understand that there are qualifications to teach dance, just like there are qualifications for any other subject.”

Another issue is space. Schools must make room, literally, for dance—whether it’s converting a classroom or working out schedules to use the stage in the auditorium or share an aerobics room. “There’s already space in place for physical education,” Cone says. “That’s why it’s sometimes easier for administrators to have dance placed there.”

Consider these statistics: 57 percent of K–12 students in America receive no dance education whatsoever, while 36 percent receive some dance instruction from PE teachers, and a mere 7 percent are taught by full- or part-time dance specialists. (Note: While these statistics, gathered by the Fast Response Survey System in 1995, are more than a decade old, they are the most recent data available and are, according to NDEO, still accurate.)

Dance in Gym 

What are those 36 percent learning about dance in gym class? Though dance is included in the National Standards for Physical Education, how PE teachers incorporate it into their classes—and whether they do at all—varies widely across the board. Ideally, educators say, dance in physical education would include psychomotor development (flexibility, coordination, strength, etc.), rhythmic exercises, creative movement and cultural and social dance. “When I taught in the elementary schools,” Cone says, “I taught dance three or four times during the school year. Students had units in cultural, social and creative dances.”

Fran Cleland, a kinesiology professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, has traveled to many states to provide dance education consulting for PE teachers. She estimates that only about one in 10 teachers infuses dance into the curriculum. “It might include cultural dance and social dance that’s not taught all that well,” Cleland says. “Quite honestly, they’re not encouraged to include it. There is no administrator saying, ‘You need to balance your curriculum.’”

Instead, including dance is often up to individual teachers. Jackie Malaska, executive director of the New Jersey Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, and a retired physical education teacher of 30 years, incorporated a rhythmic lesson in every class with her K–4 students. With children in grades five and six, she led units on cultural dance, line dancing, ballroom and other social dance forms. For Malaska, who doesn’t have a dance background, the goal was primarily to help children experience the joy of movement. “We don’t have dance teachers in most of the schools, so it’s people like me who love to dance anyway, who are teaching kids the basics,” she says. “I teach them levels, directions, force, effort. They don’t know they’re learning dance; they just think they’re having fun.”

Teaching the Teachers to Dance 

Unlike Malaska, many physical educators shy away from including dance because they are unfamiliar with it. One reason could be that many physical education majors’ exposure to dance is fairly limited. For example, at West Chester University, majors are required to take only one two-credit course that includes dance education. And students spend only half the semester on dance; the other half is devoted to gymnastics. “They have no skill and no confidence in dance,” says Cleland, who teaches the course. “My goal is to get them to be competent in a beginning level in some dance forms, and also to be confident to get their butts into some workshops at the state and national levels.”

The National Association for Sport & Physical Education, of which Cleland is president-elect, recently began offering dance workshops to help supplement PE teachers’ dance training. NASPE collaborated with the National Dance Association to develop two seven- to eight-hour workshops for elementary and secondary school teachers that are offered across the country. The workshops teach participants how to infuse

cultural, creative and social dance forms into their lessons.

At Rowan University, physical education majors take two dance-related courses. One, offered through the dance department for non-dance majors, is a basic survey course called Elements of Dance. The other, Rhythms and Movement Forms, is part of the physical education department and, like NASPE’s workshops, explores dance from a cultural, creative and social perspective. Theresa Purcell Cone, who teaches this class, says a large part of her goal is helping students feel comfortable with dance. “If I can get them to feel like dance is accessible, then I feel that they’ll be able to develop a dance unit and teach it,” she says. “It’s mostly about convincing them they can do it.”

In the end, many educators agree that dance in K–12 is not an either/or situation. Because the body is its primary instrument, dance is both artistic and intensely physical, and in an ideal world, students will be exposed to both aspects of the discipline. “I have found that children love to move, and that they love to move to music,” Malaska says. “If you’re going to say dance is [only] an artform, I think you’re missing the boat. Yes, it is an artform, but we’re not making professional dancers out of every child. If we can make them feel comfortable with their bodies and able to express themselves, then we’ve done our job.” DT


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