Stepping out and showing children how to find themselves

Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-14 17:33:01


Dufftin Garcia (bottom) and Kay Gayner with children from the Dancing into the Future program in Minhang Photo: Courtesy of Helen Stambler Neuberger
Dufftin Garcia (bottom) and Kay Gayner with children from the Dancing into the Future program in Minhang Photo: Courtesy of Helen Stambler Neuberger

In 2011 a group of talented Americans came to Shanghai for the Dancing into the Future - I Can Too program and have since become regular visitors to the city. This education program was established with the China Welfare Institute's Children's Palace, New York's National Dance Institute (NDI) and the Minhang Education Bureau with organizational support from the US-China Cultural Institute.

Based on a commitment to the concept of "love and respect for each child," the program aims to promote the social development of children from different backgrounds, helping them gain confidence through the study of dance, the arts and international collaboration. Since the program's launch, Dancing into the Future has trained dozens of teachers in China and has involved nearly 1,000 children - 200 of them are the children of migrant workers in Shanghai. Let's hear what these artists from the US say after teaching here.

Kay Gayner, director, NDI/China Project

"I've traveled to Shanghai five times so far, the last three as leader of a team of colleagues from NDI in pursuit of a grand experiment - we've been charged with teaching Chinese teachers how to use the arts to enlarge the lives of children who might not otherwise be exposed to the arts at all. Our classes center on creating choreography and teaching performance skills to children of all backgrounds and abilities, typically fourth or fifth graders.

Our focus is not to create tiny professional dancers, but to use the arts to transform each child, no matter who he or she may become in the future. As an American teaching artist, you fly a million miles to China and walk into a room where 100 small Chinese faces stare up at you. 'How will I communicate? What will I have to offer?' you ask. But then, on Day One, you dance, and they follow. The music and the dance take care of everything else we need to know for now.

NDI founder Jacques d'Amboise often repeats: 'In any NDI class, the most important person in the room is the child who struggles.' This is the heart of NDI's teaching philosophy: we believe that every child is born with inherent energy, joy and potential for achieving excellence, and that taking care to teach a child who struggles can energize everyone in the room, lifting the entire class to greater achievement. 

This approach to teaching is unusual both in the US and China, but in China we are told over and over that it's revolutionary - the opposite of the usual approach to teaching. One of our partners in this experiment, the principal of the Middle School at the Experimental Primary and No.2 High Schools Affiliated to Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Minhang, explained: 'In China, our teaching is a pyramid with the point at the top - we focus attention on the best students and expect the learning to trickle down to the rest. NDI's way of teaching turns the pyramid upside down, helping those who struggle to rise to the top. We see how everyone improves as a result and how happy they become.' 

There's nothing more enlivening than creating an opportunity for children to root for an underdog. We stop the class, correct a mistake, then cheer for the struggler when he masters a step. Our job is to guarantee success, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Maybe it's applauding the biggest smile, the wiggliest wiggle, the ability to finish a step in time with the music. Truthfulness is mandatory, but if you're paying attention, there's always something to praise.

In fact, a child's first or second taste of success is never insignificant - the eyes light up, the demeanor changes when the group applauds. Anecdotal experience tells me, and I firmly believe, that one taste of success can change the trajectory of a child's life, because it changes the way she sees herself, fundamentally changes her concept of who she can be, which changes the dreams, aspirations, goals and the confidence with which she pursues them.  That's not cultural, that's human."

Dufftin Garcia, NDI teaching artist/choreographer

"Dance is a universal language, so no matter where you go, you can teach dance without worrying about a language barrier. As an American, I am used to dealing with all kinds of different demographics and personalities. In one class alone, I can have an extreme extrovert, the knucklehead class clown, the quiet but extremely intelligent, the totally shy introvert and the space cadet. No matter where you travel, those personalities will exist. 

In China, the stereotypical personality is shyness. Students do what they are told and follow every rule to the T. Upon walking into a dance class, they all stand in straight lines, awaiting the next command. It's as if the concept of freedom to move about has been restricted - not that they live in such demanding circumstances, simply that they are trained to act a certain way in a classroom no matter the type of class. 

When I asked them to spread out and stand where they could be seen, the look of confusion was mixed with smiles of joy, the noise of fun and the chatter of gossip. When they learned that I could sometimes be the biggest clown in the room, the sense of relaxation was palpable. The smiles were suddenly glued to their faces and they were not only awaiting their next instruction, but anxious and eager for it. 

At the end of class, every student seemed to feel the same emotions American students feel: joy and satisfaction for their recent accomplishment. The shy one, the class clown, the space cadet and the born-to-be-a-star have each experienced a moment of success. These personalities are everywhere. With the universal language of dance, you can make them glow for the world to see.  From China to Israel to Mexico and the US, I can teach dance and not have to speak a word."


Yakir Ben-Hur with a group of young dancers Photo: Courtesy of Helen Stambler Neuberger
Yakir Ben-Hur with a group of young dancers Photo: Courtesy of Helen Stambler Neuberger

Yakir Ben-Hur, NDI musician/composer

"When teaching musicians in China the different skills needed to play an NDI class, I have discovered that one of the most demanding skills is to play variations of the same song. In a typical class, the music needed varies very often and, at times, unexpectedly, so the musician needs to be able to adapt the tunes he knows to fit many situations (tempo changes, key, mood, style, solo vs. group dance). That requires a great deal of inventiveness, improvisational skills and musicality on the spot!" 

Felix Ventouras, NDI musician/composer

"My most memorable teaching moment came when a musician asked me how to play traditional Chinese songs in an 'NDI' style. (I took that to mean she wanted to use the songs to accompany the core NDI dance steps, which require a strong pulse and sense of downbeat with an upbeat tempo). We took apart a song which she played softly, very slowly, and with a beautiful accompaniment. To transform the piece, I added a groove in the bass, then played the melody at half-speed and the accompaniment at twice the speed as the melody; then I switched it so the melody became twice as fast as the accompaniment. 

Seeing her face light up as she heard the two versions of the same tune was wonderful; I realized she understood that a melody is malleable! However, what I lacked the ability to tell her, for it was lost in translation, was that not every melody is appropriate for this kind of transformation, and that she must develop her instincts to know when such an alteration will enhance the choreographer's vision. 

Depending on the type of choreography, the softer slower version of the song may have been perfect! Then again, transforming a traditional song can give it new life, with more opportunities to be felt and heard in the dances and classroom. I trust she will come to realize this as she incorporates the songs into her repertoire, and I can't wait to see and hear the result."

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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