Dallas — In the last couple of weeks, there have been many conversations surrounding Barack Obama’s recent initiative to make community college free. Will it work? Will people jump on board and take President Obama up on his offer? Will we see enrollment increase at the community college level (because enrollment has gone down this last academic year)? We will see a ripple effect throughout high schools and universities because of this?
I don’t know. I can offer my opinion on this; but what seems to be more important is pointing out the facts as I know them. As someone who works in the system, I see every day how affective community college can be for a student. I also have born witness to how eye-opening the experience can be: at this level, we are able to offer students the chance to experience opportunities and classes they were not exposed to while in high school. My perspective is, of course, focused on dance, as dance is one of the types of classes that many students do not have the opportunity to take before the collegiate level—for a variety of reasons from lack of funding, lack of exposure, and lack of support from their family and school environs.
Many public schools have cut their arts programs significantly, and one of the first programs to go is dance, because it’s such a specialized art form and requires manpower, expertise, and money to properly teach. Much of the same can be said for other visual and performing art forms, but dance, no matter how you look it and try to defend it, is the least popular of them. More people have been exposed to painting, drawing, sculpture, theatre, technical theatre, music, orchestra, and choir, than dance. Because if you look back at K-12 education, those classes are offered more regularly than dance—dance is instead offered as an alternative to physical education (a way to get out of PE class). Yet, dance education is in the beginning stages of a revival period and is slowly being integrated back into the arts curriculum at the community college and university level.
I am speaking generally here: I’m aware that there are many longstanding dance major programs in Texas and in the nation. But on a whole, the accessibility of taking dance at the college level, be for it the first time or to continue your education, has been lacking in the last 20 years since the drastic cuts of NEA and public funding to arts programs and educational institutions. Now, we are seeing an increased interest from students, and research that has shown how dance is engaging students, enhancing their critical thinking and creativity, and how it positively impacts their self-esteem, memory, and focus.
The literature also states that when dance is incorporated into the curriculum, students tend to have a more positive attitude toward school. They want to learn and study. They are beginning to be more successful in other areas of their education. This is due in part to how the arts allow for a more equitable learning environment, stronger information retention, and encourages active participation from the students.
This makes a strong case for a liberal arts education and dance education. If we can provide access to it at the community college level, and give them something they didn’t get in high school, maybe we will see an increase in graduation rates, and later one, an increase in students graduating from four-year institutions. Maybe I’m advocating for a utopia here, but I’m on the front line of this battle and I’ve seen how successful an arts education can be.
Students enter our dance studio at Eastfield College for the first time and they light up. This is what they have been curious about for years…what’s it like to be a dancer? They take our classes and find that answer out for themselves. Maybe they won’t pursue dance after they leave us, but they get to experience something they have always dreamt about, and that’s the most enriching part of my job. It’s one of the many reasons that I teach: to be able to introduce someone to an art form that had seemed out of their reach and show them that they can do this, that dance isn’t a scary thing or something to be ashamed of trying; it’s a beautiful form of expression. And even if you don’t become a professional dancer or decided to major in dance, just being able to embody it for a brief moment will change you.
In the last three years, we’ve been lucky enough to see our department have a number of students be accepted into dance programs at local universities, and to see a couple of our students join training programs and professional companies. I’m seeing the value of education personified, and while it’s on a small scale, and I’m only talking about a specific school, the impact of the community college education has been positive for the students.
One of the reasons why I think it has been so positive is because community college is affordable. In the Dallas County Community College District, a three-hour class only costs $177 and a one-hour class costs $59. That’s significantly less than the university systems, and other neighboring community college districts. With these rates, a student can work through their core classes, prepare themselves for the type of work they will do at a four-year institution, and try out new things that they were maybe afraid to try or unable to try previously. This latter point relates directly back to my discussion about dance.
We are able to provide students with a safe and encouraging environment to begin to study dance, because, generally, when you take a college dance class, your peers are choosing to be there. They are taking the class—paying for the class—because this is something they want to learn more about. They want to realize a passion, they want to do something they were told they couldn’t do, shouldn’t do, they want to discover a new “them.”
We are also able to provide Continuing Education classes to adults who want to return to school and for people in the community who just want to learn something new. It’s something special, and it shows that education doesn’t have to stop just because you got a degree. There’s a beauty in learning and growing, and always remaining a student.
Yet, only time will tell how much of an impact President Obama’s initiative will have. But what I see so far is attention being called to the community college system and an increased conversation. And that’s step one.
Note: If you are interested in taking a dance class, or have been looking for a place to try out a new type of dance, Eastfield College has continuing education courses open right now. We are currently offering: Ballet, Modern, Tap, Ballroom, and Body Conditioning. You can view our current course schedule here, or contact me directly with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Registration is still open.
» Danielle Georgiou is a dance educator, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and is a working dancer and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears the third or fourth Sunday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
Previous columns are:
- February 2014: Cash Choreography
- March 2014: Make the Fringe Your Future
- April 2014: Don't Freak Out, It's Just an Audition
- May 2014: You Love Dance. You're Not Alone
- June 2014: Persevering Through Movement
- July 2014: Sharing in Success
- August 2014: To the Barre
- September 2014: Method Act
- October 2014: Fear of Flying
- December 2014: The Editor Dance