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Building Dance Literacy

West Ada School District

The purpose of this residency was to bring professional dance artists, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (RW), teaching artists for a week-long residency to build dance literacy for students at the K-12 public arts schools. Out of the four art disciplines (visual arts, music, theater, and dance), dance is the least taught/seen/written about/experienced art form in the public schools. During this residency, students participated in dance, created dances, learned to describe the kinesthetic properties of dance—bodily position, placement of weight, sense of tension or freedom in the muscles—and retell their experience of the movement in colorful verbs. Students learned how to describe images called up by a dance through metaphors; offer their own opinions, and form meaning by drawing on past experiences of motion, everyday life, and other subject areas. Students worked collaboratively with the guest artists to explore movement, create new choreography, and dialogue about dance as an art form.

The Essential Question that guided our projects’ focus was:

Where do choreographers get ideas for dances?

Throughout the RW residency, students answered the essential question, “Where do choreographers get ideas for dances?” Students watched several RW professional dances in a virtual concert and many excerpts of RW previous choreography to learn about the guest artists. Students explored various ways to generate movement and create choreography. RW choreographed four unique dances stemming from diverse ideas for IFAA students. Each dance choreographed involved students contributing to the work by making artistic choices and answering additional essential questions, “What influences choice-making in creating choreography?” Students had in-depth discussions with the guest artists about, “How is a dance understood?” and listened to the artists speak of how they came up with the dance idea. Throughout creating the work, dancers worked deeply on manipulating space, time, energy to help the artists communicate the idea of the dance.

At the conclusion of the project, students responded to questions related to the identified Standards:

“I learned that really anything can be an idea for a dance. I learned that you can generate movement from a topic.” —sixth-grade student
“I learned that as a dance artist, repetition can be fundamental in a dance and can help the audience connect to the choreography. I also learned that as a dance artist, having a motif is very important and will show up many times in different ways. Lastly, I learned that as a dance artist, adding surprising or unexpected movements to the choreography will make the choreography more interesting. I learned three things that will help me be college and career-ready. First, I learned that as a choreographer, your choreography should come from inspiration and inspiration can come from anywhere. Second, I learned that if you slightly soften your hinge joints you will have a wider range of motion to move around in space. Third, I learned that there are people who will inspire me and push me out of my comfort zone to do something different.” —eighth-grade student
“I learned to trust the choreography and try to see the choreographer’s vision.” —seventh-grade student


RW teaching artists use a modern constructivist approach for students and teachers to learn about and participate in the art of dance. This residency accomplished having students participate in the Dance Artistic Processes of Creating, Performing, and Analyzing. Students learned that ideas for choreography can come from many places such as images, sounds, textures, properties of matter, personal experiences, words, colors, emotions, and from the basic elements of dance. Eight RW dance artists worked with 31 students for two weeks: 30 total hours of contact time. During the residency, IFAA was not allowed to have more than twenty people in a class, hold an assembly, so digital documentation/video sharing replaced in-person experiences. The remote residency with RW dance artists was very successful. The choreography was brought to multiple settings for the community, including performances totaling 700 in-person audience members and 500 plus virtual audience members. The arts are transformative even in a virtual setting. Embodied learning was rich through critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and imagination. RW teaching artists are trained to adapt and diversify teaching to meet all student needs across all ages.


RW is committed to furthering contemporary dance as an accessible and valued art form through performance and dance education that raises the standards, deepens the understanding, and promotes personal connections with dance. RW?s high standards were evident in RW’s professionalism, preparation, and execution of teaching and learning. This residency was educational and therapeutic and afforded students a special experience with guest artists when many performances/residencies had been canceled. Having large, in-person audiences at the end of the school year performance and digital recordings, the art was shared with the greater community of West Ada School District and beyond. The formal dance concert programs included details of the artistic processes in artist statements to build audience dance literacy. My only regret is that the four arts elementary schools did not participate at all and missed the positive experience of building dance literacy. Due to the pandemic, only Idaho Fine Arts Academy (IFAA), 6-12 grade school, participated in the residency virtually. The other four K-5 arts schools decided not to participate in the residency because they did not know how the digital residency would work with students, and they were overwhelmed with remote/hybrid learning due to the pandemic. IFAA asked for permission to continue the residency without the elementary schools.