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Raising the barre

Dance enhances education at Park Slope middle school
New York Teacher
Dance teacher Michael Kerr dances right along with his 8th-grade class at MS 443
Jonathan Fickies
Dance teacher Michael Kerr dances right along with his 8th-grade class at MS 443 in Park Slope as he illustrates new steps.
Student dancers work on dances they have choreographed.
Jonathan Fickies

Student dancers work on dances they have choreographed.

It’s completely still until dance teacher Michael Kerr strikes the drum and suddenly everyone is in motion. The 6th-grade girls twirl and bend while the boys tentatively reach and arch.

It’s only days into the new school year and already these beginning dancers at MS 443 in South Park Slope are comfortable with the feel of their bare feet on the wood floor and the challenge of moving their bodies with deliberation and aligning their movements with those of a partner.

The drumming stops, but a few dancers miss the cue. “It’s all right to make mistakes, but in dance the end must be the end,” Kerr explains. “Dance is not like a run-on sentence.”

In the advanced 8th-grade class a period later, the focus and concentration are palpable. “You’re not thinking about after school or your last class,” he instructs them. “Knees over toes, heads over shoulders, find your center.” The music begins and the mirrored wall of the basement studio reflects the elegant precision and grace of the 32 young dancers. Chins up, shoulders back, toes pointed, eyes straight ahead. It looks so easy, but they are working very hard.

Kerr, who has danced professionally in the United States and abroad, said he has always wanted to be a dance teacher — not a dancer. He is now a fierce advocate of establishing dance programs for students from kindergarten to high school in every city school.

Dance is not a “frill,” Kerr insists. He speaks passionately about how dance develops a well-rounded human being, reaches the kinesthetic learner and is part of the multiple intelligence approach to teaching. Students learn to pay attention to detail and to build a work ethic. He cites U.S. Department of Education research that finds overwhelming evidence that dance boosts student achievement and test scores in academic subject areas.

Kerr’s students were part of the unrehearsed, unscripted “PS Dance” that aired on PBS last spring. The hour-long documentary turned the spotlight on dance education in public schools and dramatized the positive impact it has on student development.

At MS 443, the New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts, Kerr fought hard for his program, now in its 15th year. The program requires 6th-graders to take dance as part of their introduction to the arts while 7th- and 8th-graders who choose dance as their arts focus have double classes four times a week.

Ghazi Albuliwi, an ESL teacher at the school, praised the “professional quality” of Kerr’s program and how “closed-up” students “open up” through it and “start to shine.”

Science teacher Cherise Windbish said she was impressed with the dance students’ understanding of anatomy, how the body moves and how it’s connected. She said the dance students’ sense of personal independence and attention to detail pay off in organizing and conducting lab experiments in her classroom. Windbish said her own daughter’s hatred of school changed completely when she started dancing in Kerr’s program and now her daughter is using her dance background as she works for a college degree in physical therapy.

In his modern dance studio tucked away in the basement of the Brooklyn school, Kerr is there in his bare feet illustrating positions and steps, moving around, encouraging, correcting. He becomes part of the ensemble dance lines, modeling the motions as the students move through choreographed dances.

“I know what it is to do a lesson plan,” Kerr said to explain why he divides 90-minute classes into various activities to keep middle school students engaged. Advanced students work together on steps and precision exercises, break to rehearse ensemble work and then move into small groups, in which each group choreographs a short dance — “to expand narrative into movement,” Kerr said. Finally, each group presents its piece with the other students providing a critique.

This fall, Kerr, a former chair of the NYC Dance Educators/UFT, is receiving the 2015 Diana Domoracki-Kisto Award for Pre-K–12 Dance Educator from the New York State Dance Education Association.