Bridging high school with college and beyond in Virginia
When her teaching hours dropped roughly 38 percent between September 2011 and June 2012, Abigail Agresta-Stratton had an inkling. New York State school dance programs were being cut left and right, and dance teachers—only some of whom are covered by tenure—were losing jobs. Although Agresta-Stratton had built the West Islip High School’s program from the ground up in 2006, by spring of 2012 she was out of a job. Though she claims she had a “woe is me” moment, it couldn’t have lasted long. By fall, the former president of the New York State Dance Education Association was holding the reins of the dance division at Chesterfield Specialty Center for the Arts at Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Virginia.
As sole dance educator of the by-audition-only performing arts high school, Agresta-Stratton teaches five classes per week (68 students) and oversees the dancers’ concerts. “When we interviewed Abigail, we knew we had found a dance professional with experience, energy and vision,” says Pamela Barton of Specialty Center for the Arts. “We wanted someone to bring in new connections to benefit our students, and her
leadership in dance organizations gives her a wider vision of the professional world and
In her first year at a new school—let alone in a state with different policies, administrators and colloquialisms—Agresta-Stratton’s tenacity has come in handy. “I’ve had to learn fast,” she says. “I don’t know the language yet—my New York sense of humor doesn’t fly all the time here.”
Still, she’s jumped right in: She’s on the board of the Capital Region Educators of Dance Organization—the National Dance Education Organization’s state affiliate for Maryland, DC and Virginia—and is working to increase membership and has started an online forum for members. She’s also piloting a new program in partnership with NDEO: Chesterfield Specialty Center for the Arts is the first high school to house NDEO’s dense dance education research database, DELRdi—something typically used by university programs.
Agresta-Stratton’s take-charge attitude has also resulted in a slew of guest artists, including Bob Boross and James Madison University’s Cynthia Thompson, and a trip to see the University of Richmond Dance Company perform. And though she has increased the amount of student-generated work and about half her graduates go on to dance in college, she’s aiming even higher. “I look at programs like LaGuardia and New World School of the Arts, and I want our program to be on par with them,” she says—plans for a national high school choreographic exchange are already percolating. “We can have that quality of education. I’m just trying to get through the first year.”
Photo by Cliff Cole, courtesy of Abigail Agresta-Stratton