NEW YORK — One of the first lecture demonstrations of Accent Dance NYC took place at an elementary school in the South Bronx, where a large percentage of children lived in temporary housing and shelters. Most had never seen a professional dance performance. They became transfixed watching a diverse sampling of ballet, tango, salsa, hip-hop and more.
Somehow, they understood the special bond that diverse artists of Accent Dance NYC had forged by dance, which was further solidified as it brought the joy and beauty of dance to children just like them.
“Do you feel like a family when you dance together?” asked one student in the Q&A session that followed the performance, perhaps coming from one of the many children who lived in shelters. The question crystallized the ability of dance to transform lives and unify people.
It also reminded me of how my small charitable organization might bring joy to children in underserved communities, including the South Bronx and Mount Vernon, a city bordering my small Westchester suburban town.
Despite the documented advantages of arts education, we face unprecedented challenges during the pandemic in reaching underserved youth. Many schools will remain closed or opt for remote learning for an indefinite period. Even where schools reopen for in-person instruction, it will be a partial reopening at best. School administrators may decide, or already have decided, that arts programs should be reduced or eliminated, with school resources and student hours devoted to “core” subjects, such as math, science and English.
This shortsighted approach does not consider the children’s need to have more, not fewer, emotional, physical and creative outlets. That’s why for the coming fall, Accent Dance NYC has teamed up with some of the schools we were working with prior to the pandemic to bring virtual dance programming to students. Lessons are designed for small, apartment-sized spaces. Offerings include hip-hop dance parties and choreographic workshops to explore the creation of movement sequences, taking inspiration from, among other things, everyday objects, language-based prompts, teacher-led videos and other educational materials.
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Accent Dance NYC also has partnered with BronxNet TV, where culturally responsive dance programming will be streamed to school children and their families on a weekly basis. We are also discussing potential Covid-19-compliant, in-person programming at a Westchester County YMCA that successfully reinstated some of its athletic programming this summer.
Accent Dance NYC grew out my childhood desire to right a societal injustice: inequitable access to arts and dance education. I grew up in a Detroit suburb, raised by a family of Russian-Jewish cellists, violinists and pianists on one side and Polish-Jewish doctors, lawyers and architects on the other. As a child, I delved into academic studies while also pursuing my passion for ballet, which continued throughout my college years.
“If and when schools can reopen safely, dance, music and other arts programs should be included as part of the school day, particularly in communities of color where Covid-19 has disproportionately affected families. Gyms and lunch rooms can be made available for socially distanced arts instruction.”Andrea Ziegelman, founder, Accent Dance NYC
While all of these opportunities were available to me, I recognized my good fortune. The inner city my parents fled in the late 1960s remained divided by racial conflict and socioeconomic strife. Too many children were trapped in a cycle of poverty, prejudice and inadequate education.
After raising my own children and spending 30 years as a children’s legal advocate, I seized an opportunity to bring the power and beauty of dance to neighborhoods akin to the Detroit of my childhood, where children too often lack exposure to transformative experiences, including the arts.
How could I satisfy the moral imperative to advocate for innumerable Black and Brown children who face daily inequities — not at the hands of warring parents or guardians with whom I was accustomed to dealing as an attorney, but by a system that favors children in wealthy, primarily white, communities? How could Accent Dance NYC provide dance opportunities for underserved children? What difference were we trying to make, and why?
At a young age, underserved youth bear witness to a disproportionate share of economic strife, unemployment, violence, stress, serious illness and death. Returning to school, in and of itself, is not a consistent outlet. Their parents — unlike those in wealthier communities — cannot often afford private lessons, camps and programs that foster their children’s exposure to the arts, and their schools may not offer much enrichment either.
And yet, a 2013 study found that high schoolers who studied dance scored higher than non-dancers on measures of creative thinking, especially in the categories of fluency, originality and abstract thought. Other studies have shown a solid correlation between studying dance and improved learning in math, reading and science.
Studies aside, I have seen with my own eyes how dance has positively affected the children to whom we’ve brought lecture demonstrations and dance residency programs.
If and when schools can reopen safely, dance, music and other arts programs should be included as part of the school day, particularly in communities of color where Covid-19 has disproportionately affected families. Gyms and lunch rooms can be made available for socially distanced arts instruction.
If in-person instruction isn’t possible, virtual movement classes can be offered to students as an alternative to physical education. During the early stages of the pandemic, Accent Dance NYC successfully implemented virtual dance instruction for its students, and we recently partnered with a local television station to continue to provide movement classes to youth and families in the Bronx and beyond.
Now more than ever, we must advocate for and serve precisely those underserved youth who need the arts as vehicles of hope, for emotional, physical and intellectual growth and transcendence.
Andrea Ziegelman started Accent Dance NYC with her fellow teaching and performing artists to bring high-quality dance education programming to school children in New York City and neighboring areas. She is an attorney who comes from a family of classically trained pianists, cellists, violinists and singers.
This story about arts education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.