As a child, Mary Francis “Cissy” Whipp would sit in class and ponder the dances she could perform to illustrate her teacher’s lesson. Her 30-year dance career has brought her to classrooms of her own at universities across the country, including the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. For the past 14 years, Whipp’s career has come full circle, with her making connections among dance, reading, math, science and social studies for young students at J. Wallace James Elementary. Recently, Whipp’s passion for education and dance was recognized when she was named Dance Educator of the Year by the Louisiana Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
Your teaching space is part studio and part classroom. How do you make those academic connections for students through dance?
A lot of people don’t realize that dance has standards and benchmarks like other content areas. While following the standards, there are places to make connections.
There are the 21st-century thinking skills like collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, working together in a team. I may do a simple math game with my students where I’ll say five people who are wearing red shirts go into the center and make a dance shape. Then, let’s subtract the children wearing shorts and how many students are we left with? We use language words: all of our directions — over, under, in between — which we can relate to prepositional phrases. With older grades, I may pick a social studies or science topic. We can dance the water cycle, and at the same time, we’re working on our building blocks of dance: B-E-S-T (body, energy, space, time). If I’m using soft, yielding, movements that can also be the act of water condensing in a cloud and turning into precipitation, we can do a thunderstorm and use our strong, sharp energy. I can remember being in the classroom learning things and thinking, “I can make a dance out of that,” and it’s served me well.
Did you ever envision you’d be teaching younger students and linking dances to science lessons?
I come from three generations of teachers, so I’ve always had that teaching gene in me and always liked teaching and working with kids. I used to teach at UL, and I still made time to do residencies in the school system and bring the dance majors in to show them that this is how we work with children. A lot of people think dance is a series of steps you need to learn like shift, ball change — but it’s even more elemental than that. It’s how you use your body. What’s my core? What does it feel like to lengthen my spine? Working with kids, you’re always in that basic body level. I’ve always been a curious person. It’s one of the things I like about teaching in the school system. I’m teaching six grade levels. There’s always going to be a challenge to figure out how to connect and have the time to teach the art form. This is never a dull job.
What are some of the changes you see in students through the course of the school year?
A lot of it is social skills changes. That’s another thing that arts help children with. In dance, you have to be able to work with a partner. We all have to make a circle and go in the same direction and not bump into someone else. That’s a hard skill for some children. There’s the social conditioning of taking turns. They learn to share, to take turns, to take responsibility for themselves. Another thing they are learning is patterns of movement. If I’m teaching them a simple dance, it has eight counts and then those eight counts repeat and then there’s a change in the movement. They’re learning at this age to read and decode those patterns of letters. We’re reinforcing some of those same things.
J. Wallace James is an arts academy, so students are exposed to the arts daily. What difference does that exposure make for students?
I think it makes for a full human being when you have art. It’s a way to be creative and open to others’ ideas and points of view. We need to learn how to think from multiple points of view. The arts create a natural incentive for kids to work hard. If they’re working to finish a project or a dance for a show, there are these goals to fulfill and work toward. There is rigor. There is standard. It’s not just free time or play time. It’s an intrinsic reward. I see lots of joy at this school.
Marsha Sills covers education for The Acadiana Advocate. Follow her on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.