On a school day in December, the scene in the P.S. 002 auditorium on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is particularly joyful. The pianist plays an upbeat tune, while a sea of fifth-grade students stomp, bend, punch and jump around the stage with big smiles on their faces. The dance teacher, National Dance Institute artistic director Ellen Weinstein, shouts out level changes, direction changes, compliments and corrections, with a pacing that doesn’t allow time for distraction. Notably, these students are not chatting, resisting or goofing off the way you might expect of this elementary school age. Everyone is participating.
National Dance Institute is a nonprofit created by former New York City Ballet principal and George Balanchine protégé Jacques d’Amboise that offers children within the public school system the opportunity to dance, regardless of financial status or background. NDI partners with 44 schools within the NYC metropolitan area and has developed 12 affiliated programs throughout the country.
P.S. 002 is one such NDI partner school and serves as a great example of the inclusivity the NDI teaching method supports. Teacher Terence Sumner points out a small boy standing in the front, demonstrating the choreography with pizzazz. “He just moved here from West Africa,” Sumner says. “He doesn’t speak any English, and this is the only class he can fully participate in—dance really is a universal language.” Sumner goes on to point out other students in the class who have their own challenges to learning (some on the autism spectrum, some with ADHD, others with physical disabilities), but who are also thriving in dance.
Jacques d’Amboise with Ellen Weinstein. Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy of NDI
While the organization has trained teaching artists in its method since the beginning, it has now announced the NDI Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, a teacher training program with a codified methodology. In essence, NDI is taking its innovative teaching method public. “As our program has become higher-profile, we have received more and more requests from companies with educational outreach programs, like American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and BalletX, to help their teachers become more effective in engaging children,” Weinstein says about the reason for the new endeavor. “Now, we’ve established strong executive and administrative leadership to head up this side of NDI, and we are more professional and planned about spreading the methodology.” This summer the NDI Collaborative will offer a two-week summer intensive in NYC and also has plans for four-week evening sessions throughout the school year for local teachers. NDI can also create customized trainings for companies and schools.
That said, the organization recognizes its method is not the right fit for everyone. “The movement style Jacques created is meant for sneakers in a school classroom,” she says. “We don’t necessarily think ABT’s JKO School should start teaching our movement style to their students. But why not have them start incorporating humor into their lessons? Why not change the front of the room throughout class, or divide the room in half and have them face one another, or have three people demonstrate while their classmates watch? It’s not about what we are teaching; it’s about how we are teaching it.”
“This is for any individual teaching artists and dancers who want to enrich children’s lives through the arts, as well as for dance companies with educational outreach programs who want to give their teachers the skills to be more effective in the classroom,” says Weinstein.
One force driving the NDI Collaborative is the need to secure the d’Amboise legacy. “Jacques is 85 years old,” says Weinstein. “There was a time when we were worried about what would happen to the program once he was gone. But we’ve since learned that his techniques are transferable. Now there is confidence in the future of NDI. I feel his method will live well beyond all of us.”
For more information: ndicollaborative.org
Eight NDI Teaching Essentials From Ellen Weinstein: Advice for Success in Working With Diverse Learners
“You could be the best dancer in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into teaching,” says Ellen Weinstein, artistic director of the National Dance Institute. “You can have the best choreography in the world, but in the end, it’s only as good as your teaching. You have to work with your students where they are at. Help them do more than they ever dreamed possible, but not more than they are actually capable of. Start with where they are, and then raise the bar as you go. Be willing to simplify/adjust your expectations as well as your lesson plan to match their capabilities.” Here, Weinstein shares eight essential ideas of the NDI teaching method that can be useful for any teaching practice.
Never have a front line. “We are constantly turning around in the room so that the person in the back knows what it feels like to be in the front. They never know when it’s going to be their turn to be featured, so they stay engaged because they want to be ready.”
Project a commanding presence. “Even if a teacher in training is nervous, they need to teach with voice. They have to be confident in order to instill confidence.”
Don’t turn your back to the students. Mirror them instead. “If the children start with the left, I have to start with the right. It takes time to learn how to do this, but it makes a big difference.”
Learn to work with live music. “I know that it isn’t always possible to have a live musician present, but when it is, so many teachers don’t even know tempo, or how to count the musician in. It really impacts the pacing of the class and is important for drawing the students in.”
Use voice or hand gestures to maintain focus. “I often switch to a quiet voice to get the students’ attention. They immediately lean forward to hear what I’m saying. I also use a lot of sign language. The dancers really like this because they feel like it’s a secret language we have just between us.”
Change the pacing to keep students engaged. “I try changing the speed of the music to twice as fast or twice as slow. Or, I have the students sit down for a minute and then have them jump back up and try the phrase again so they don’t have time to chat.”
Create a safe environment where students can cheer each other on and take a chance. “We do this by asking the students to stand on their own or in groups of three and demonstrate while the other students sit, watch and learn. I ask them what they noticed that the student did well, or have them listen as I give corrections. If someone is struggling, the group erupts into cheers when they fix the correction because they are sharing in their success. We are developing their eyes to see what they respond to, what they find dynamic and what they find exciting.”
Give honest feedback. “Kids know when you’re lying. We teach educators to say, ‘I love how you did that. Now let’s do it again while getting your knees higher.’ We teach them that it’s OK to point out when a mistake has been made, but to do it with humor and joy.”