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How Teaching in Public Schools Made Me a Better Artist

Posted on by 10Web Support

Christal Wagner

I’ve been with Danceworks Performance Company (DPC) coming up on 10 years now primarily doing dance performance, choreography, and teaching for the Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap program (Mad Hot). A decade seems to be a nice increment in which to measure the evolution of my life and my career. My artistic values have changed and molded as my role within Danceworks has also changed.

I graduated from UW-Milwaukee with my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance in 2007 and immediately started with DPC that fall and shortly after I was asked to choreograph for the company. It was also in Spring of 2008 that I started to teach for Mad Hot (of which I will be starting my 10th year).

What I love about working in Mad Hot is the one-on-one experience I get with a diverse group of children and students. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I was naively unaware of how diverse my own state was. Teaching all over Milwaukee has revealed to me just that, and it is through this diversity and the specific needs of the students that I’ve discovered how essential the arts education Danceworks provides is.

This need is not about the type of arts education, but the values that arts education teaches. Becoming a dancer, or rather an artist, teaches important values in young people who start to consider themselves as artists. What we’re really teaching in Mad Hot is the importance in finding value in what you do, not just dance.

As the idea of cherishing value has slowly crawled into my life over the years, I recall that my first year teaching for Mad Hot was very hard. The experience was a bit like climbing a steep rock wall with no gear. I had plenty of dance training under my belt but no real tools in how to actually climb this steep wall.

I was initially so grateful to be exposed to so much of the city and was never regretful that the job was a hard one filled with negotiation, balance, and juggling of tasks. Over time, I discovered teaching in Mad Hot is not about having the best discipline practices nor about the best pedagogy, although these two things help immensely.

What benefits my students and makes the process easier are the values we instill. At first I thought it was best to teach harshly through technique and discipline, form and rigor, but the years have taught me it’s not successful unless you teach the “why” behind it.

It’s my duty to help the students discover the values behind a regular practice in this form and why we teach technique, rigor and discipline.  I would have been shocked to know 10 years ago when I started Mad Hot that teaching VALUE would be the main theme in each lesson.

How do you even teach value in a ballroom dance class anyway?

We teach it through basic relationship skills, respect, and body language. Students become appreciative of the moments when their dance partner gives them good body language like a bow or a gesture of asking for their partner’s hand to dance. They learn the importance of giving a gentle smile and upright posture paired with a neutral open welcoming stance. Asking them to tune into their body language is more about helping them find value in appreciating their peers use of body language.

This has made me consider how often, as professionals, do we ask ourselves to tune into this same thing, the value of body language. For me its shifted how I approach my rehearsal process, how I’ve shifted my interaction with my co-dancers and also how I’ve shaped my intentions in the workplace. My art has also has shifted because of the idiosyncrasies of body language.

We also teach value through teaching mental and physical responsibility. How eye contact with the teacher changes the way you listen. How participation changes the way you learn and memorize the steps you’re responsible for. How successful self practice at home makes you a better dance partner in the classroom and how you can appreciate those around you who have practiced their steps.

This in turn has taught me to reconsider my responsibility as an art maker and as a teacher. I have to be responsible for the ideas I put out on the stage. Is it intriguing or simply entertaining? Does it compel the audience to be more curious about the work. Does it spark discussion?

As I remind you that most of my students are 5th graders, we also delve into the idea of curiosity and how we as dancers and artists can become curious about the form we’re learning and how we use that curiosity to problem solve while learning the steps. I find that creating an environment where curiosity is important also helps empower students to take ownership over whats being learned.

Often this program will be the first time that the students will discover they are good at something or that dance may be easy for them where math or grammar, as a few examples, are very difficult. They learn that dance requires all the same skills the subject of Math and English require: reasoning, responsibility, curiosity, effort, value in practice.

I could go on about how these concepts have changed my idea of how I approach my career, but I hope I’ve made my point. Teaching in the public schools with Mad Hot has made me a better artist, or  rather, has made me reconsider what it is to be an artist in the first place.

Christal and Ballroom partner at 16 years of age

You can witness Mad Hot in action at the Danceworks Mad Hot Tap Competition on Thursday, January 26, 2:30 – 6:00pm at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Stop in any time to witness 1000 students from 34 Milwaukee schools shine. And as we always say, don’t forget to bring your Kleenex!



About Our Blog

Welcome to the Danceworks blog, where we're hoping to share a little bit more about the heart and soul behind Danceworks… what made us join the dance and keeps us dancing, what keeps us inspired, and where we can share some of the stories worth telling.