For Dr. Nyama McCarthy-Brown, the pandemic and social justice movement surrounding George Floyd reaffirmed the essential work she had already been doing for years. The Ohio State University professor, who has been advocating for teaching practices that embrace students’ cultural backgrounds since 2007, found herself working to find resources for teachers and communities in pain. “There was so much inequity. The pandemic shining a light on that whole situation was an opportunity to take a step back and see what’s really going on,” she says.
From her early days teaching youth in school settings to her work today teaching dance pedagogy, technique and composition to college dance majors as a professor of community engagement through dance pedagogy, McCarthy-Brown has been researching, writing about and championing an approach to dance pedagogy that centers on integrating the cultural backgrounds of students into the class curriculum. In a culture and society largely dominated by Eurocentric dance forms, traditions and methodologies, students of the global majority often find themselves marginalized in their own dance classes.
Over the course of her teaching career in public schools, conservatories and, now, in higher education, she has seen how culturally relevant teaching enables students to be seen, valued and affirmed in who they are and what they bring to the table. “They are brought to life!” she says. “They are excited. They are seen. I see smiling faces. I see joy. I see them getting to experience joy in their bodies.”
In her 2017 book Dance Pedagogy for a Diverse World: Culturally Relevant Teaching in Theory, Research and Practice, McCarthy-Brown details her approach. She emphasizes, among other things, researching your students’ cultural backgrounds, incorporating (but not imitating) their movement traditions in the curriculum, and finding ways to shift your language and classroom setup as it pertains to your specific student body. Simple shifts like these can make a huge difference for a student with whom the traditional Western class model doesn’t resonate.
McCarthy-Brown’s approach has proven incredibly life-affirming for hundreds of students. One such student, Annamae Anderson, had her during McCarthy-Brown’s days teaching at Fremont High School in Oakland, a Teach For America placement early in her career. “My experience with her was a peeling off of the layers of who I used to be,” says Anderson. “I was shy and in my shell. I didn’t want to stand out. She pulled something out of me so that it was no longer an issue.”
In addition to embracing the cultural practices of her own students, McCarthy-Brown exposes them to other cultural dance forms. “She made me do the tango!” laughs Anderson. “I didn’t know anything about the tango, but she put me right in the front. She really built so much confidence in me that I was able to take to other dance classes later.”
As a college professor, McCarthy-Brown is inspiring the next wave of dance teachers to embrace culturally inclusive practices in their own classrooms, all the while continuing to research and write about ways to dismantle racism in dance spaces and offering workshops on inclusion, diversity, equity and access. “I’m working on examining dance education spaces and making them more welcoming,” she says. “I am excited about dismantling racism and looking at what barriers can be shifted to liberate our classrooms. I’m interested in investigating whiteness and white body supremacy.”
As the pandemic lingers, McCarthy-Brown has maintained a focus on her teaching and writing, and is excited about the future publication of another book about women of the global majority in ballet. “I am really excited about that,” she says. “Their stories are fascinating to anyone who would read them.”