Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"A Place for Dancing"

I decided to include the clip above because if you're anything like me the expression "High School for the Performing Arts" brings to mind scenes from the movie Fame where 25-year old high school freshmen, completely overwhelmed by the joy of art, dance with abandon in the lunch room or out into the street and on the hoods of checkered cabs.

(Incidentally, jumping down on a piano is not recommended unless you're looking to buy a new piano)

As Melissa Lodhi escorted us to the dance studio at Booker High School, a converted classroom with the desks removed and mirrors where the chalk boards would usually be, we did not see students with violins serenading leotard-clad dancers.

It was simply a quiet, expansive campus with rows of lockers and outdoor breezeways. It was unseasonably warm, even for Sarasota, with the mercury pushing 86F. The extra summer was a tremendous gift for us northerners. We gushed over the beautiful orange flowers that lined the bushes in the courtyard. Melissa's expression told us that she walked past them so often she didn't even see them.

Real high schools for the arts may not take their instruments and wear their dance shoes into the lunch room, but they are some of our favorite places to teach. And let's face it, breaking into unrehearsed musicals after every science class would get a bit exhausting after a while.

Unlike Emerson High School in Gary, Indiana (where Valery has taught in the past), Booker High School is not technically a "high school for performing arts." It is a high school with a strong arts program complete with a dance department.

The dance department at Booker High School is part of a countywide magnet program in visual and performing arts. It offers a comprehensive dance program with a focus on preparing students to pursue dance in college and beyond. In addition to technique classes in Ballet, Modern and Jazz, students study theory classes including Aesthetics, Dance History, Kinesiology, Pedagogy and Choreography. Classes also emphasize creative problem solving, divergent thinking skills and cooperation.

They seem to have a solid record of success. According to their web site, after completing their visual and performing arts program, 95% of the students are the recipients of scholarships, enabling them to continue their education in a college, university, conservatory,or professional school.

Anecdotally, I believe this to be a rarity in our current economy where arts and libraries are two of the places where budgets are frequently cut. But after a short Internet search I didn't turn up any reliable statistics on the subject. Admittedly I didn't put much much time into the search. If you know how common or rare dance programs are in high schools, please feel free to post the actual facts in the comments section.

If you're arguing for funding of a dance program at your school, incidentally, the organization Americans for the Arts lists the results of several studies showing the value of dance, especially among at-risk students.

The summer temperatures in Sarasota were a bit less of a blessing during our class, although I could see how much Valery enjoyed teaching the students as he moved on to more and more complicated combinations. The students found the class challenging, but followed every combination without repetition. We left hoping for more opportunities to guest teach in America's high schools.

I only wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the students went back to a class room to discuss and debrief.

Sarasota was one of our favorite cities all around. We had several hours between our class at Booker High School and a second class at Zero Gravity School of Dance, which gave us time to appreciate the lapping waves, palm trees swaying in the breeze and the nicely manicured parks near the downtown shopping district, which clearly shows that Sarasota is one of the wealthiest cities in Florida. And why not? If you were wealthy, wouldn't you want views like this every day?

Allen Morris's book Florida Place Names: Alachua to Zolfo Springs says the name "Sarasota" is shrouded in mystery. The version we like best says it was named by the Spanish and that the name designates "a place for dancing." There may be no words in modern Spanish to back this theory up, but it certainly seems plausible to us.