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Joanna Das, assistant professor of dance in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, leads studio experience for group of students from University City High School.

Connecting K-12 students with the arts

For Joanna Das, sharing her love of the arts with high school students and encouraging their creativity has always been important.

As a graduate student, she went against her professor’s advice and decided to teach a Saturday dance class to high school students at the Museum of the City of New York. Her professor thought she wouldn’t have time to teach the class given that the deadline for her dissertation was looming. Of course, she made it work.

The class was called “Dancing Through History: Social Dance in American Culture,” and it combined lecture, discussion and movement.

“I taught them social dance steps from the minuet through breakdancing, and how each social dance craze intersected with politics and history,” said Das, assistant professor of dance in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “It was so much fun, and I look forward to any opportunity to engage with youth and encourage them to express themselves.

Das joined the Washington University faculty in 2016.

I love dancing

It’s mid-morning on December 2 and several dozen students from University City High School are making their way into a dance studio in the Mallinckrodt Center. Shoes come off and they start stretching. They’ve just come from seeing Washington University Dance Theatre: Critical Mass.

After the show, the students were invited to participate in a master class taught by Das. The faculty of WashU’s Performing Arts Department has been providing this opportunity for more than 20 years through partnership with a university program called K-12 Connections. The joint effort by the Institute for School Partnership, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, and the Office of Government and Community Relations, provides support and the resources of the university to students, teachers, and administrators locally.

Easing into a slide split, senior Alana Collier said the performance of Critical Mass was inspirational and unique. “I loved the way everybody flowed together,” she said. “It really spoke to me.”

Observing the from sidelines is University City dance teacher Heidi Morgan. “I got zoomed right into it,” she said of the performance.

Morgan said being at WashU and participating in this master class with Das “makes a great impression on” the students. She said this artistic experience can often be seen in their class projects.

Nerdy dance compliment

After warming up, the students are given various dance prompts. Improvisation is the common denominator.  Intimidating for some, but not to senior Raven Bullard.

ucityhigh

University City High School students Haley Rhiney (left) and Raven Bullard (right) perform during their studio experience at Washington University.

“I love dancing,” she said. “Tell me the dance and I’ll do it.”

Bullard also paid the university a “nerdy dance” compliment.  “They have an awesome floor,” she excitedly exclaimed about the dance studio’s sprung floor.

For junior Haley Rhiney, this experience was more than just a performance. She plans on having a career in dance, either as a background dancer or a professional dancer.

“I like seeing people I can follow after,” she said of Das.” Her vibe was just great! I’ve never had a class like that. It was refreshing.”

Das loved seeing how well the students worked with each other and their willingness to experiment. She praised their eagerness to go on the journey of artistic exploration, without question or complaint.

“Today’s experience reaffirmed my love of dance and love of working with youth,” she said.

The K-12 Connections Program strives to connect the resources of Washington University to the local K-12 educational community. Students, staff, faculty members and organizations are matched with volunteer opportunities in high-needs urban school districts in the St. Louis area. To learn more about this program, click here.

December 2016 | by, Myra Lopez

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