A dance educator of a different stripe. (The Teach--Learn Connection).
This philosophy--that the best learning comes from hands-on involvement--has guided Zalesky's career as a dance educator, arts administrator, and movement instructor for more than thirty-four years. It is at the heart of the advice she offers clients of Together in Dance: Zalesky and Associates, the New York/New Jersey-based consulting firm she founded in 2001. And it is fundamental to the professional development programs she designs for New York City dance educators. In these, dancers and public-school teachers not only devise strategies to get children moving in the general classroom but learn the nuts and bolts of each other's careers by doing: Teachers choreograph and improvise, while dancers study curriculum guidelines and develop lesson plans.
Broadway dancer Richard Toda never knew what a lesson plan was before the summer of 1998. That was when he attended Professional Artists Teaching in K-12 Schools, a program Zalesky initiated at Manhattan's City Center while she was director of educational outreach (a position she held for twelve years, immediately prior to establishing her company). Toda, who now works in the New Jersey and Long Island school districts as a teaching artist for American Ballet Theatre's education department (in addition to dancing in The Phantom of the Opera) says that Zalesky has a knack for building bridges.
"Jannas has an amazing way of putting the right people together," says Toda. "By bringing in artists of a certain caliber to teach New York City schoolteachers, she builds [the teachers'] confidence and knowledge of dance, and has affected, in a huge way, how they teach all day long."
Zalesky believes there is no single right way to teach dance in public schools. "We've been teaching dance within the schools in fifty million different ways for eons," she says. "Dance education is getting more recognition now, but the same issues are there: Should dance be taught under P.E.? As a discrete subject area? Within the general classroom? And who should teach it--the specialist or the classroom teacher?"
With associates Karen Curlee and Margot Faught, Zalesky empowers dance artists and classroom teachers to collaborate on tailor-made programs. If dance is a creative activity, then it follows that developing dance education programs should be equally creative.
"Every school is different," Zalesky says. "You have to make adjustments, and you have to allow everyone to have real input into what they're going to be doing. What comes out of the process isn't as important as the process of making a structure that everyone has ownership of and [the knowledge] that they're the ones who created it, from the ground up."
Sharon Dunn, director of arts and cultural partnerships for City University New York, notes that the processes Zalesky sets into motion tend to be inventive and effective. "Jannas has wonderful ideas and she's very pragmatic in being able to implement them. So she's not just a creative thinker, she's a true activist--she knows how to get things done," says Dunn.
When Dunn was working for Community School District 25 in Queens, New York, Zalesky created an elementary education program designed to spark interest in dance and to support a feeder program to the local performing-arts junior high school. The success of this project led to support from the National Endowment for the Arts for a program linking dance to the general curriculum of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders.
"There is a lot of interest in using movement and dance as a vehicle for teaching other subjects," Dunn says. "One concern is that it can't be that dance is a handmaiden to whatever subject is being taught."
With Zalesky designing, Dunn says this wasn't a worry. "We had very high-quality dance education that was connected in meaningful ways to the teacher's priorities, so the teachers had a reason to allow the program to happen in their classrooms."
In the summer of 2001, Dance Aotearoa New Zealand invited Zalesky to help its dance community build its own bridges. According to DANZ Executive Director Philip Tremewan, "the visit was a catalyst for exploring ways in which the professional dance community can work with schools in implementing the new [compulsory arts] curriculum--and for discussing intensive training schemes for dance artists who wish to teach in the state education system."
Traveling as a Fulbright American Scholar, Zalesky spent five weeks lecturing at conferences and meeting with various arts organizations and school and studio teachers. There, she found she spoke the same language as New Zealanders, who welcomed her holistic approach. "They're a very small country, therefore they depend on each other strongly, whereas [the U.S. is] so big that the person on the right doesn't talk to the person on the left. Within the same school, teachers often don't know what other teachers are doing."
SHE RECALLS ONE STRATEGIC MEETING in which the Minister of Education, the head of Creative New Zealand (the national arts council), and a host of New Zealand dance companies sat at the same table--something she says would be hard to imagine happening in the United States.
Common to educators and dancers worldwide is the debate over teaching dance as a series of steps or as creative exploration. Zalesky, who advised the Royal New Zealand Ballet during her trip, says that professional ballet companies must learn to adapt their step-based tradition when entering the public education arena.
This is a challenge Toda relishes. He's found imaginative ways to, as he says, "physicalize a student's knowledge" by integrating ABT's repertoire into general studies. He cites a recent instance when he taught the opening montage of Billy the Kid to eighth graders studying U.S. westward expansion. This led to discussion of how the pioneers lived and moved. Not only did the experience teach the students about ballet, Toda says, it also "opened a bridge to history, and to their experience of studying history."
Toda's approach embodies the best that dance education can offer, according to Zalesky. "The children's creative growth is the role of dance within public education. Self-creativity has to be a part of this--it will help them become better thinkers, better citizens of the world, and lifelong dance lovers. I want dance to touch their souls at some point--that's the important part of this work."
Sara Wolf is dance critic for the LA Weekly and a freelance arts journalist.
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|Title Annotation:||Together in Dance: Zalesky and Associates|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2002|
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