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New Dance eXchange program reaches out to Philly’s Andrew Jackson School

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Aurora Jensen

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!” the kids shouted in unison, while jumping, clapping and stomping rhythmically to the music during the first week of BalletX’s new Dance eXchange program at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia.

As part of its outreach to under-resourced schools, the young contemporary dance company adopted an innovative curriculum developed by the National Dance Institute (NDI) that is designed to help students build skills and confidence through movement.

“Dance eXchange fulfills a responsibility that BalletX and other arts organizations in Philadelphia have to spread their enthusiasm, experience, and skills to the community," said Christine Cox, the BalletX co-artistic director and the main architect of the program.

During the classes, the kids are asked to perform simple moves like jumping up and down while waving their arms, or bouncing back and forth between their feet while clapping.

They are given positive feedback by the highly energetic teachers as they figure out the sequences and learn coordination. The reinforcement helps the students to believe in themselves and work hard in an atmosphere of high spirits and fun.

“The program is all about developing student voice and motivating students to pursue personal and academic excellence,” said Lisa Kaplan, Jackson’s principal. “By the end of the first week, students were loving it and parents were blown away by the energy.”

A Columbia University Teachers College research study of NDI’s in-school programs credited the program with improving school climate, teaching students to think creatively, and encouraging self-confidence, self-discipline, and motivation. The study’s author, Rob Horowitz, the associate director of the college’s Center for Arts Education Research, wrote that "45 percent of schoolteachers reported that they learned new teaching skills from the NDI teachers”, including new creative pedagogical approaches to student learning.

“It’s all about positive peer pressure — everyone’s having a ton of fun doing these high-energy, fairly simple dance moves,” said Antonia Brown, a local choreographer and dancer who participated in a pre-program training week at Andrew Jackson. “The stubborn kids who think they can’t dance or have some sort of defensive negativity just end up getting swept up in it. … They just light up!”

The training week was held in late February, when NDI teachers visited from New York to impart their teaching methodology and curriculum to the BalletX members who will be working with the Jackson students. From now until May, members of BalletX will provide afterschool dance instruction twice a week to between 30 and 40 3rd-through-5th graders. Students were given the opportunity to sign up and were chosen on a first-come, first-served basis.

The students will prepare for a mid-program showcase and a final showcase for their community that will help develop the students’ confidence and teach the value of perseverance toward a goal.

Cox agreed with Kaplan that the first week was "incredible, intense and heartwarming," as well as challenging for the BalletX members who hope to live up to the legacy of the unstoppably energetic teachers at NDI.

Cox hopes to expand the program in future years to reach more than 5,000 students weekly, have a longer training session, and eventually become an associate program under the full leadership of NDI.

The program is being supported by a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant, PECO, and several other donors.

Aurora Jensen is an intern at the Notebook.

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