How to Teach Math? Just Dance

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By Sophia Guida

On a crisp Friday afternoon, on a tiny stage in a school auditorium, a group of five Bi-Co students and their professor warmed up to dance away the afternoon, amid broken chairs and fluorescent lights. A frazzled teacher stood before the audience, the second and sixth graders of Morrison School in Olney, Philadelphia, and said, “You guys are getting a free college class in the second and sixth grades, so pay attention.

This performance was part of the Dance Outreach Project, a special project during the fall semester in which two different casts of five students spend the entire semester rehearsing and then performing in Philadelphia-area elementary schools during the last few weeks. In a 40-minute performance with original music and costumes, they combine lecture demonstrations about math and world geography, a choreographed folk tale about friendship and the importance of finding common ground, and audience participation into a show for students up to the sixth grade. Professor Madeline Cantor of the Dance Arts Program began the project in 1993 as a way to introduce elementary school students to the arts as well as to allow Bi-Co students to access another facet of life in the Philadelphia area.

“College can be [like] a bubble,” said Cantor in the May 2008 issue of Dance Teacher. “I think it’s great to get students out into the world.”

The project helps students see the kinds of resources that are available in public schools. Many of the performance spaces have poor lighting and acoustics. Stages are often small and do not have wings. Sometimes the performers have to change into their costumes in bathrooms or teachers’ offices. Last minute changes inevitably occur. At one point during the folk tale, a table slipped and hit the back of a dancer’s knees. 

“I was shocked at first,” Chris Flores HC ’13 said. “But the show must go on.”

The show also contained a high level of audience participation and engagement. Many of the elements of the show included audience participation, and at the end there was a question and answer session in which everyone with a question got a chance to speak.

“I used to call members of the audience up on stage, but we could never call up everyone, and it was just another element of scarcity in their lives,” Cantor said. “Now the dancers lead all of the audience through some of the dance concepts introduced in the program, but in their seats. Everyone, especially children, needs the chance to move in meaning-filled ways."

Due to the pressure of high-stakes testing, schools are forced to set aside less time for assemblies and performances, even if they are educational. These high stakes tests were the reason the audience consisted of only two grade levels — all the others had been confined to standardized test practice.

”Kids now are turned off from school,” said Ilene Poses, a teacher from the Special Education department. ”But things like this get them excited about learning.”

When asked how they liked the show, the entire class of sixth graders responded with a resounding “Yeah!” At 2:00 on a Friday afternoon, they had been completely captivated.

“In college, you don’t get to see little kids that often,” Mimi Fuchs HC’13 said. “It brightens your day.”

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