Now that stringent Common Core standards, piles of homework, and hyper-competitive college admission have become the academic norm in the United States, circumventing widespread bouts of anxiety and despair that result from such expectations has become an urgent mission for child advocates around the country. PS Dance!, which aired on PBS in May, demonstrates how integrating dance into a curriculum helps kids better internalize their studies, but even more importantly, creates an opportunity for them to find a center between body and mind.
Hosted by journalist and news anchor Paula Zahn, this short documentary has a news special feel that quickly gets to the heart of what many consider lacking in public-school education—a core. Not the sort that’s supposed to make American schools perform better on the global education scene, but rather an emotional core that keeps kids grounded, at peace and in the best case, out of harm’s way.
It’s a thought-provoking film, especially sandwiched between documentaries like Race to Nowhere (2010) and Fame High (2012), both popular Netflix titles for folks currently yearning for change in public schools. Whereas the former weighs the price of pushing kids too hard academically and the latter examines school life when the emphasis is on one’s artistic talent, PS Dance! explores how dance can regenerate the spirit of young people who might not otherwise be exposed to it. The goal isn’t to create prima ballerinas or So You Think You Can Dance contestants—it’s to help forge well-rounded human beings who can think independently but collaborate with others, and who have the ability to improvise but also control their impulses.
Although one educator at PS 315 in Brooklyn, New York, admits you can’t “conclusively draw a line” between dance and academic success, teachers routinely see a boost in self-esteem and a stronger sense of identity in students who have the chance to move creatively during their school day. That isn’t to say that academics aren’t affected in positive ways (unlike in two Fame High profiles that show how the need to perform and audition can sometimes override the need to study). Dance teachers working within an established school curriculum can fold their art into academic units, as one did when she instructed her students to “dance” Harriet Tubman’s escape. When students begin weaving dance with math or history or literature, teachers find that students have a firmer grasp of contextualization and critical thinking. It just seems to come naturally.
Ani Udovicki, a teacher at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, New York, best expressed the importance of marrying dance and academics when she explained how “whether you’re Einstein or a choreographer, you have to be able to imagine what doesn’t exist.” In an earlier scene, the principal of a Manhattan public school with a dance program noted that there’s “not one way to be smart,” which is the very thing so many kids struggling to stay afloat in school long to hear, particularly from faculty.
PS Dance! focuses on New York City public schools, and although it offers some statistics about how the number of dance teachers in the district has grown over the last decade, it doesn’t provide any hard and fast facts about the relationship between academic achievement and dance, nor does it address whether dance is required or an elective in some of the featured schools. It would be interesting to look at dance education in public schools nationwide, assessing the cost against the societal payout, but this is just shy of an hour-long film, and New York City is at the forefront of the movement. There are, however, plenty of firsthand accounts of how putting unlikely dancers into dance shoes builds confidence, especially among young boys, promotes teambuilding and even raises awareness about ongoing problems like bullying. Viewers are left to answer the question: Which is most important in this era of distressing news stories—high scores on standardized tests or being a positive, high-functioning citizen? Can the two come together? New York City is trying.
If you follow dance and are most familiar with watching wunderkinds rise through the ranks and into world renowned dance companies, then seeing scenes in which dancers of all levels, from all backgrounds, create their own work, perform, and even run their own dance companies is enough to bring a tear to your eye. As Michael Kerr, a dance teacher at New Voices Middle School in Brooklyn, said, putting dance in public schools broadens the idea of “who dances and who doesn’t in our society.” When the have-nots and the cannots can, it makes all the difference.
PS Dance! is available now from First Run Features. The 53-minute DVD has optional English and Spanish subtitles.