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Behind the Curtain

Further Commentary on Teaching in Higher Education
By Susan McGreevy-Nichols
Posted on 12/13/2017 5:04 PM

From time to time, NDEO will be featuring guest blog posts, written by our members about their experiences in the field of dance education. We continue this series with an entry from Julie Hammond White, Dance Education Director, University of Southern Mississippi. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please email Shannon Dooling-Cain at sdooling@ndeo.org.





Further Commentary on Teaching in Higher Education

Julie Hammond White, Dance Education Director, University of Southern Mississippi


I am confident that my colleagues in academia would readily agree that our most significant and common goal in the education of our students, regardless of content area but particularly in the field of dance, is to fully prepare them to find success in their chosen profession in whatever area(s) they choose to pursue.  Beyond finding stable employment, we hope to inspire and equip students to define, advocate for, contribute to, and ideally impact and evolve their work so that they can not only “make a living”, but also “make a great life”.  As professors, our work in service and scholarship evidences our own success in the above ways, but one could argue that nothing we do is more potentially impactful than the quality, creativity, and consistency we bring as teachers to the mentorship and education of others, and every day, in the classroom.  Why?  More than any paper, presentation, production, published book, or website that we might offer to our field, the thousands of students that we see over the course of our careers are the ones who will carry our field forward and one day lead, teach, and inspire others to do the same.  Our classroom and what takes place there is our great laboratory, our holy sanctuary, our most ritualized and regular creative practice that leads most directly to the development of future colleagues, making teaching a great responsibility as much as it is a great privilege.  Because of this, it is important to articulate what makes a great teacher, regardless of course content and learning population, so that we can ensure the presence, appreciation, and potential of these qualities in both the dance faculty and the dance students involved in the learning process.  


As the Director of Dance Education and the creator of the dance education licensure curriculum, the focus of my research, service, and instruction has centered on defining what “quality teaching in dance” is (both dance education and integrated dance), disseminating the process of achieving this for others, and modeling and presenting these practices for students and colleagues alike.  There are many essential skills, knowledges, and dispositions that an effective teacher of dance must possess, and many ways to achieve this education, but in this blog I would like to offer an idea that is immediately applicable, accessible to all regardless of one’s level of experience or present resources (resourcefulness, not resources, are required), and will transform the learning experience for those involved.  This suggestion is a way that you can make your teaching more effective today – this semester – and in all courses that you teach.  This idea is rooted in relevance (“why are we learning/doing this and what are the applications if I do?”) and “getting ready for the professional dance world” specifically – the chief goal of our collective efforts as I proposed in my introductory statement.  My suggestion is the integration of “real world” experiences into one’s course curriculum, no matter if they are pedagogically, technique, research, or performance based.  In other words, whatever skills, knowledges, or dispositions are being taught in your class, create an experience (as an accompanying or culminating assignment) that directly connects the student to this exact experience in their larger (and ideally professional dance) worlds.   When done well, content will come alive, student motivation and investment in learning will increase exponentially, and the infusion of professionalism will be a natural by-product.


An obvious and extreme example of this for the dance education licensure student is student teaching.  After three and a half years of training and college coursework, they are placed in two consecutive K12 dance classrooms for a total of 16 weeks.  During that time they learn to plan, instruct, assess, and manage elementary and secondary students independently and become truly prepared to do this professionally when they graduate.  As importantly, they also learn how to get up at 5:30 AM every day, have a back-up plan if transportation falls through or the computer crashes, and come to school with energy and a positive attitude when they only managed five hours of sleep and their lesson plan on weight sharing utterly failed the day before.  In other words, by making “real world teaching experiences” their culminating coursework, the skills, knowledge, and dispositions gained go far beyond the objectives articulated in their syllabi.  


Here are a few of the ways I have added in “real world assignments” into various dance and education curricula I also currently teach:


  • In Repertory Dance Company II, our junior performance company, we work to establish professionalism as much as we train dancers in performance, technique, and the choreographic process. In this class, I work with dance education majors to create an outreach performance for elementary school students that we set on RDCII dancers and eventually perform on campus and tour into K12 schools.  Students in RDCII thus learn “professionalism” by becoming our department’s ambassadors and touring performers.  The simultaneously learn how to act on a bus and how to fully perform on a postage-sized auditorium stage.  In RDCII, we teach students to “go with the flow”, to “give dance to others”, and to “get along and give one’s best to others” as much as we teach these dancers how to perform well.

  • In Advanced Ballet Technique, we strive to bring technical and performance skills in this demanding dance form into balance in order to achieve true artistry. Therefore, I re-stage diverse classical and contemporary ballet variations that students perform in our informal Student Showcase Concert at the end of term.  Through learning these master works and supporting information about their choreographers and the companies that perform them, students connect kinesthetically, as well as cognitively, to past, present, and future artists in the ballet lexicon.  Because the dancers are “rehearsing” these variations for performance before an actual audience, their efforts double as well as their willingness to risk and invest what they must in order to embody all that is demanded in order to be “performance ready.”  

  • In Intermediate Modern Technique we reinforce and expand the foundations of modern. At this stage of learning (typically sophomore year), students’ professional goals are still quite ambiguous, making relevance and connections beyond the classroom truly important.  When I instruct this class, I assign students a “Post Graduation Dossier”.  It is a written assignment that spans the term and includes many things:  weekly reflective journals that connect what they are learning as a dancer in all classes; research reports on dance companies/schools/organizations that they are interested in as well as identifying audition/application dates and requirements for them; selection of a city that they plan to live in as a working dance artist and fully investigating and reporting on the cost of living there (transportation, rent, groceries, utilities); etc.  In-class dance instruction supports this assignment by exposing students throughout the semester to a variety of modern dance techniques (and accompanying culminating phrasework) which are historically, artistically, and culturally contextualized.  More than anything, this dossier helps the “professional world of dance” and its many career possibilities and contributing artists become more defined, accessible, personalized and thus possible for them to envision for themselves.  The by-product is that they “wake up” to the immediate need to train, research, and create outside of course assignments and requirements in order to achieve their fullest potential and make the most of every opportunity given to them.  In short, they begin to become self-actualized learners and begin to educate themselves as much as their professors do – a necessary step in the training of an artist.


  • Finally, and perhaps most comprehensively, students in Methods II – a course for dance education students that was newly integrated in our department curriculum last spring and that focuses on the many forms of research and advocacy in dance and education – spent a semester setting, rehearsing, producing, and presenting as research an interactive evening-length choreographic work on USM dancers.  The project was submitted and selected as featured student research, via a poster presentation, to the USM Honors Symposium (an assignment).  The students in class then applied for funding (an assignment) to present their research (both the concert and the accompanying classroom activities and curriculum they made in support of the show) at the NDEO National Conference, again via a poster presentation, and again as an assignment.  They were awarded the full scholarship amount they requested and they were invited by NDEO to present their research this fall.  Students in this course learned how to advocate for dance and how to create, fund, produce, and present scholarly and creative research in academia and at a national dance conference, but not through lectures, handouts, or stories of my own experiences.  My students learned how to do these things by doing them all themselves.  They will also now have the honor of presenting their ideas and accomplishments to a national cohort of dance educators and join in conversation and shared experiences with these learned colleagues from across the country.  I have no doubt that they will return from San Antonio with renewed confidence, motivation, and goals as young artist/educators.    


In closing, I have long refuted the old saying in the arts that “those who can’t do, teach.”   I believe that the best dancers are the only ones who should teach, because with proper training in education in partnership with sharing all they know and can do as artists, their students will be unlimited in their own potential.  Artist/educators understand that similar to making a dance, making a curriculum is a creative practice that must be responsive to the students involved in the process, highlight students’ strengths, challenge them in meaningful ways, capture the intention of the work through clear objectives and objective assessments, and above all, remain collaborative and interactive.  Dance is discovery-based and passed down through shared experiences.  Teachers are the ambassadors of our field, and because of this, must always remain learners and be willing to gain whatever skills, knowledges, and dispositions are needed to serve the next generation of artist/educators.   Eleanor Roosevelt has said that “good is not enough when great is possible.”  I propose that our ultimate legacy as dance professors is what our students carry of us into their professional lives and impart one day to their own students.  I encourage us to always, and in all ways, strive to be “true artist/educators” – for the benefit of them.  For the expansion of us, and for the future of dance.  


Julie White (B.F.A, M.F.A) is an Associate Professor, Director of Dance Education, and a K12 Licensure Supervisor at the University of Southern Mississippi.  Her areas of research are arts assessment, curriculum development, outreach and community work, and “teaching teachers how to teach” in K12, higher education, and integrated and dance education classrooms and programs.  She has been repeatedly invited to present her work nationally at NDEO Conferences, regionally at ACDA conferences, and statewide as a curriculum track leader in dance at the Mississippi Gifted Child (MGAC), Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC), and Whole Schools Initiative Conferences (WSI).  In 2016, she was appointed to the esteemed statewide Teaching Artist Roster, and was selected for a third year as a Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education (MAAE) granted artist-in-residence.  White is co-founder and education director for the Mississippi Dance Festival, co-founder and co-director of Camp Create, and the creator of “Wiggle Genius” – a website for K12 classroom teachers that disseminates the many approaches to teaching academics artfully with dance.  In 2013, White was named “Teacher of the Year” at USM, and received the MAAE “Excellence in Higher Education Award” for her accomplishments in, and contributions to, dance and education.