Jessy Kronenberg, CDEA Past-President
I took over the El Cerrito High School Dance Program in January of 2012, in the middle of the school year. I was replacing my teacher in the program from which I graduated in the late-nineties. Many aspects of the program were the same, and of course many others had changed drastically over time. For one, the students didn’t seem to take the program, the opportunity to dance, or the commitment to work hard and produce high quality work as seriously as I had remembered.
I took advantage of the start of the following school year to institute some major changes. First, the highest level class, Dance Production, became the Gaucho Dance Company (the school’s mascot is the famous Argentine cowboy). Within the Company I created two groups: the Apprentices and the Ensemble. Students auditioned into either of these groups. The Apprentice members signed contracts stating that they understood they were not guaranteed the opportunity to perform, but they could work to attain this privilege. The Ensemble members signed contracts stating that their opportunity to perform was something that could be lost if they did not hold true and tight to the content of their contracts. The students worked together to write these contracts and they were signed by our principal, the dancers, myself and their parents.
This change worked to increase the rigor and intent of the program at the top. It also proved that the most motivating factor for the students was the opportunity to perform, and that when this opportunity was presented as a privilege that was not guaranteed they began to hold themselves and each other to a much higher standard. Meanwhile, in my beginning and intermediate classes, I started inserting opportunities for leadership as regularly as I could. “Line Leaders” were selected alphabetically daily and all students had the chance to lead, and were expected to lead, with my TAs as we worked through progressions across the floor. There were also voluntary opportunities to for students to lead small groups if a dancer felt confident enough with a movement or concept that they could help another dancer improve upon it themselves. In this way, leadership opportunities were distributed even in my beginning level courses.
The following year I added two additional strata to the Gaucho Dance Company. I appointed four Dance Captains, and distinguished the Senior Ensemble from the Ensemble company members. The Dance Captains took on a huge amount of responsibility for running the company and were awarded with certain privileges. For example, they choreographed the class dance/finale for our final shows (a huge responsibility with a cast of 35!), they conducted contract reviews with the company when dancers got a bit off track mid-year and needed to be reminded of what they agreed to, they met weekly with me to make plans for upcoming performances in the community, and they coordinated simple birthday celebrations in the studio. In exchange for their leadership in these capacities and many others, they got first pick for rehearsal times for their own pieces (as it turned out, this was a hugely motivating factor) and my ear on issues arising in the company.
The Senior Ensemble took on leadership in that they were all assigned a Master Class to teach. They could teach it in my intermediate or beginning classes, it could focus on any style of dance they liked, and I provided them with lesson planning structures so they were not flying blind. In this way, I connected my lower level courses to my advanced performance ensemble. When the younger students came to see the dance company show at the end of the semester, they would see their TAs AND their master class teachers on the stage. They could suddenly imagine themselves as those dancers who they knew up there taking their bows.
These days, the company members vote on their Dance Captains and the Senior Ensemble members also teach master classes in our middle school feeder program. The GDC contract is updated annually to reflect the values of each new iteration of the company and as a chapter of the National Honor Society for Dance Arts, we have woven induction processes into our contract and company structure. Enhancing opportunities for leadership in my program has also made the position more sustainable for me. I share small parts of the workload with my most trusted students, for whom I later write glowing letters of recommendation or act as a reference for them on job applications. It’s become a win-win situation! I look forward to future opportunities to refine the Gaucho Dance Company structure and grow our dance program to be the best it can be. I know that cultivating leadership within the program is a proven way to make that happen.
Questions? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org