The Wrecking Crew
I am a dance teacher. I teach dance for a program called Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership. This organization brings the arts IE. dance, music, art, and theater etc., to the inner city public school system in Philly, through teachers like myself known as artists in residence.
I teach middle school, fifth through eighth grade. The school I teach at is in an African-American neighborhood. It is located in a section of Philly called Germantown. It is underemployed, impoverished, run down, dangerous, drug populated and a crime ridden section in the city. Unfortunately there are many.
My job is to expose the students to the different genres of dance. Ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, tap, African, Latin and whatever else I have up my tutu. NONE OF THESE KIDS HAVE EVER TAKEN A DANCE CLASS. There is no studio, mirrors or ballet barres. They can’t afford water bottles. We do have a stage in the auditorium with a one speaker audio system. They have stage lights, however, the school can’t afford lightbulbs.
To say that my job is challenging is an understatement. These kids are craving attention. They can’t listen, are rowdy, disruptive, over stimulated and to top it off, throw in some “tween” hormones! You feel me?
And I love them.
I knew starting the first day of class I would have to win them over so I started with hip-hop, Ms. G. has it like that. I brought a slamming playlist that had them thinking… who is this old white lady? I’m 48, current, hip and relevant. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t be able to teach in this environment that’s for sure.
I gave them homework and told them to write down three songs they liked. I would listen to them and use them if they met my approval. WELL NO WAY JOSE. The song choices they brought will never play in my class and I told them in those exact words. I don’t think some of them understand the content (sex, drugs, hustling, gang banging) but they might. I know they like the beat.
We are three months into the program. I have taught them a complete medium level warm-up (that they can’t do correctly) but they have it memorized and they try. No baby steppin’ here. I knew at the end of the year we would have to put on a performance so of course, day one, I started teaching them the choreography for our number. I had no idea if and when they would be able to do it. They had it down in six weeks, to the best of their ability, MEMORIZED.
These kids have a lot of obstacles in their lives, for example walking home in the dark. If they don’t have someone to walk home with, no dance class, they have to walk home before sunset. Finding transportation, not coming to school, weather, having to take care of a younger sibling or for whatever reason, they are not consistent. They can’t be, they are kids that depend on adults.
Now we are doing ballet. A traditional ballet barre warmup with classical music (I even killed it in that area by finding cool Disney piano tunes) and using the auditorium chairs as a barre. Let me tell you… I TRIED. It just wasn’t happening. There was no joy, for any of us. If there is no joy I won’t teach. I changed tactics. I decided to combine the jazz warmup they know and like and added ballet and modern exercises. We demi-plie and tendu to Drake, the rapper. They are dancing ballet!
I’m always updating my music to keep it fresh and they are always beating me down to listen too… “Please Ms. G. use YouTube.” “No, you’re not the DJ, I am.” end of conversation. Thursday’s are our end of the week. Last week they finally had me, I surrendered and caved, but only after making sure the lyrics were clean and I watched the video.
This readers, is what our kids are into: DJ Lil Man and here’s why. The songs video’s are rapping dances, like back in the old day’s when we did the Electric Slide or, taking it further back, the Bunny Hop. They are urban line dances.
Here is the video of DJ Lil Man we danced for 20 minutes:
@DJLILMAN973 SUPA M THEME Team Lilman Anthem 2 OFFICIAL VIDEO: ft Team Lil Man Princess
They all knew the steps to multiple songs / dances. I decided to let them teach me. I can assure you this is no Bunny Hop. The dances are long, a bit complex if your over 15 years of age and the cardio workout I got is better than any Zumba class this city has to offer. They couldn’t get enough of showing me and neither could I. We were laughing and free styling and filled with JOY. They wanted to bring me into their world. Remember that attention mention, I fulfilled it.
Monday it’s back to Ms. G.’s class as usual, a few new songs, with a class of unfocused, over excited, two minutes at a time attention span kids, who are learning to dance. But is that what I’m teaching them, dance?, yes and no. The dance element is a small part of the equation here. They are engaging, learning, improving, taking risks and walking a bit taller. I am teaching these kids self-esteem, boundaries, that they matter, they have potential, self-discipline, new skill sets, progress not perfection, to show up and do your best, to laugh with people not at people and most importantly that they are being seen for who they are, the brightest stars that light up the block.