Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of funding arts education. I’m still thinking about these issues, so here is Part Two: Save the arts because the arts save lives...
The arts – dance, theater, music, writing and the visual arts – have a powerful impact on children, opening the door to deeper knowledge and self-expression. I know from personal experience, and I have seen it in young people far and wide. While the current administration has said all the right things about arts education, this is sadly not enough, because federal, state and local policies STILL favor standardized testing and severely limit arts education funding. With all the concern about remaining competitive in a global market, this is precisely the time to fund arts education and allow our children to thrive.
I started taking dance lessons at age seven. For the first year, I did ballet, but only lasted one year because the teacher was nasty and the movements were too rigid for my soul. Instead my mother found a modern dance teacher, Seenie Rothier, a kind and ageless woman with a lean body and tight bun (and buns), who spoke with a raspy voice as she led her charges through endless contractions, swirls and triplets across the floor. Trained in Martha Graham-style dance, Seenie, as we all called her, had a penchant for the dramatic, and yet she was the most grounding element in my life. I always assumed that my family life was your average normal, and yet looking back, I have realized that it was a household rife with angry silence and disappointment. Seenie’s studio on Hertel Street in Buffalo, was just up the block from Kaufman’s Deli where they sold frosted brownies, and down the block from my grandparents’ working class neighborhood. It was my salvation. She recognized my talent, and by the time I was thirteen, had invited me to join a college dance troupe. Dance was my manna and still is.
While it is hard to “make a living” as an artist, I tried my best, working as a dance therapist in a psychiatric hospital and later, teaching dance as a resident artist in the Syracuse, New York public school system. I discovered the magic of movement as a source of expression for young children. Often in these schools, children were marched into the gym in single file, and told to remain quiet and respectful of the visiting teacher.
Little did they know that the new visitor was about to tell the children to jump up and down like popcorn, express their joy and anger through finger dances, and shout as loud as they could, using only their eyes or feet. There was always one child in every school who attached her- or himself to me, following me around, sometimes sitting on my lap or holding my hand as I moved through the room. Sometimes I imagined that what this child really wanted was to crawl into my womb for safety. And there was always the wild child. Sometimes teachers warned me about him or her, and other times, I learned through my own encounters. If teachers were observing – they rarely participated – they might speak with the child in a stern, warning tone or pull the child away for time out. But when I could, I intervened and said ‘no, it’s okay’, because I could usually figure out a way that that child could use movement to express herself.
Dance is a healer, a universal mode of communication that is good for children. It’s natural. It’s great exercise. It wakes up the brain. It gives children an outlet. I have observed talented movement professionals use movement with children to help them learn science and math concepts. Dance can strengthen children’s emotional intelligence, and their ability to collaborate with others. And it can provide a form of discipline and order, when students are challenged to create dances that have beginnings, middles and ends.
A number of studies (see Critical Links) cite a positive correlation between dance experiences and nonverbal reasoning skills. One study demonstrated that “subjects” who were exposed to creative dance made significant gains in creative and critical thinking. And another study conducted with children with behavioral disorders found that when dance and poetry were combined, students’ were engaged and their social skills improved. Another study that promoted reading through dance to elementary children found that students improved significantly on all measures assessed by a reading test, including their ability to relate written consonants and vowels to their sounds.
The research on other arts modalities is equally strong, linking the study of theater to literacy, music education to improvements in spatial-temporal reasoning, achievement in reading, and reinforcement of social-emotional and behavioral skills. And classrooms that integrate the arts are a leveler for all students, including those with disabilities.
In my own research, I’ve found that teachers who implemented arts-integrated curriculum into their classroom had increased enthusiasm for teaching as they observed the positive response from students, both in terms of their attitudes towards learning, but also their ability to learn.
It’s time to broaden the policy dialogue and demand increased funding for arts education!