Representatives of private-sector dance education, higher education, dance medicine, dancewear manufacturers, and dance media gathered earlier this year in New York City (with a follow-up conference call) for the annual meeting of UNITY, the coalition of dance and dance-related organizations.
UNITY, now in its thirteenth year of operation, serves as a clearinghouse for information for the dance community. A summary of current work includes:
Representatives, chaired by Helene Scheff of the National Dance Education Organization, built upon the catalog of white papers that are available to the public on the UNITY website at www.unitydance.org.
Elsa Posey of the National Registry of Dance Educators presented information on the origin of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science. Two bulletins for teachers have been published online and are available at www.iadms.org.
Nancy Bradford and Brenda Mutch of Dance Teachers Club of Boston, and Marcia Fellows of Chicago National Association of Dance Masters and Dance Masters of Wisconsin, reported on the UNITY representation at the costume preview shows of United Dance Merchants of America. UDMA, as a member of UNITY, contributes booth space to provide further support to dance educators.
Mike Robertson of Cicci Dance Supplies and Susan Epstein of Perform Group/Curtain Call outlined initiatives for membership outreach.
Shelia Vaught of Southern Association of Dance Masters presented information on the UNITY professional development scholarship, sponsored by Curtain Call Costumes. This scholarship was made available to individuals of the UNITY member organizations.
Officers elected to oversee the work of UNITY include:
Rosanne Boots, Dance Alliance of Rhode Island, and Debbie Werbrouck, Chicago National Association of Dance Masters – co-chairs.
Patricia Cohen, National Dance Education Organization – secretary.
Helene Scheff, Dance Alliance of Rhode Island –treasurer.
Rosemary DeMott, Florida Dance Masters – committee liaison.
Cathie Kash, Tennessee Association of Dance – immediate past co-chair.
A dance teacher with a mission, Elsa Posey gives high marks to accountability and lifelong learning
By Rachel Straus
Elsa Posey’s passion for giving children high-quality dance education comes by way of experiencing the opposite: Her first four years of dance training fell painfully short. Her early instructors, who had backgrounds in vaudeville, made her believe she was preparing for a career in ballet. They also jumpstarted her performance career, including her in military installation shows when she was 9 years old. But when Posey began studying at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School at age 12, she says, “I was told that I needed to begin ‘at the beginning’ and that what I had learned up to that point was not ballet. I had to forget everything and start from scratch.”
Posey endured and re-learned. Since then her mission has been to ensure that no dance student is as unprepared as she was and that no child should be exploited onstage. “I did not want any of my students to have to suffer that painful experience,” she says. At the Posey School of Dance in Northport, Long Island, her commitment to teaching young people is in its 55th year.
The school occupies the top floors of an 1891 building, where ballroom dance instructors were plying their trade when the paint was still fresh on the walls. These teachers learned their craft from Civil War–era teachers who traveled from town to town, teaching social dances to children of privileged families. If born earlier, Posey says, she wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to dance. Her father was a taxi driver and they lived “on the other side of the railroad tracks,” far from the mansions dotted along Long Island Sound. But by the late 1940s, it was possible for middle- and working-class children like Posey to take dance classes and find local benefactors to further a professional education.
Today this passionate educator teaches 12 ballet classes weekly and knows her field inside and out. Like a historian, she considers the big picture, which leads her to ask big questions: Why, in the United States, can anyone call herself a dance teacher? Why do teachers adhere to traditions that foster self-loathing in students? Why aren’t there standards for teaching dance? This habit of asking questions not only makes Posey highly knowledgeable, it makes her a born teacher who needs to understand as much as possible before passing on information to her students. That’s certainly Patricia G. Cohen’s view of her. “My first impression of Elsa,” says the New York University dance education teacher, “was that she listened. She wanted to know who I was and what I thought.”
Posey is a product of both vaudeville and European ballet training. American dance, she says, is a reflection of both strands, but schools, even today, remain divided into competition studios or ballet academies. When Posey opened her school, however, she didn’t want to create just a ballet academy. With her sister Jacqueline, who was trained in modern dance, she offered instruction in several dance forms, incurring the disapproval of her peers. “My ballet colleagues severely criticized me for bringing modern into the curriculum,” says the school owner.
Since Posey never divided dance forms into “good” and “bad,” “high” and “low,” she developed, with her sister, her own tastes and standards. When 29-year-old Jacqueline died in 1971 after being hit by a drunken driver, Posey’s mission for her school endured. She found other instructors to teach Jacqueline’s specialties—modern, jazz, and tap, thereby honoring her sister’s legacy and her desire to offer, she says, “a complete education in dance.” The school now offers classes in jazz, tap, Middle Eastern/belly dance, modern, ballet, and creative movement.
Today’s commonplace fusion of multiple dance forms on the world’s stages has not escaped Posey’s notice. But a career on the stage is not something she pushes on her students. “A majority of my former students choose not to pursue a career in dance; they dance to enrich their lives through artistic endeavor,” she wrote in her resume.
At first glance, Posey’s ballet classes appear identical to others’. Her students start with pliés and graduate to battements. They wear pink tights and black leotards. Silence, however, does not reign. “I believe children should be allowed to talk at appropriate times during dance class,” Posey explains. By reading about child developmental psychology and by talking to experts, her sense that children learn in many ways—not only by silently watching and replicating—was confirmed.
Last May, when Posey’s intermediate-advanced students took New York City Ballet soloist Jennifer Tinsley-Williams’ class at the Lincoln Center studios, they didn’t make a peep, knowing well ballet class etiquette. “I want my students to be able to take a ballet class anywhere in the world,” said Posey, observing their calm, concentrated approach to Williams’ class.
But in Northport, those students receive more than traditional technique classes. Posey teaches them historical dances, gives them individual corrections tailored to how each one learns best, and encourages them to improvise and choreograph. In 1997, Posey created The Children’s Dance Company, with a focus on children’s choreography. “[Students] should be encouraged to participate in creating the dances they perform, rather than just memorizing steps,” she says. Choreographing can yield fringe benefits, such as the increased understanding of musicality that high school senior Laura Dabrowski, a Posey School student since age 3, says she gained from the experience.
‘If you think of a pebble being tossed into a pond and the ripple effect it creates, that is Elsa.’ —Trish Harms, dance teacher and former Posey School student
Many of the students represent their family’s third generation with the school. “It’s important that they aren’t carbon copies of each other,” says Posey, speaking of her multigenerational clientele and of her desire to develop each student’s artistic voice.
Posey’s pride in her students and her desire to give them the best education possible led her to join eight dance organizations. She co-chairs an education subcommittee for the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science and is an active member of the Congress on Research in Dance, the Dance Critics Association, and the Society of Dance History Scholars. From 1998 to 2002 she was president of the National Dance Education Organization, which gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2007, established a scholarship in her name in 2002, and partnered with her to create the National Registry of Dance Educators. She is a founding member and past president of the American Dance Guild and a former board member of the National Dance Association, and was on the Professional Advisory Board of the Dance Notation Bureau.
Posey could have modeled her teaching after her most famous teachers—George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Margaret Craske—and called it a day. But this teacher has never been star-struck or self-satisfied. She is a seeker of information. Her high standards for dance and her exploratory sensibility reached their most comprehensive expression with the creation of the National Registry of Dance Educators, founded in 1996 by Posey and Peff Modelski, a longtime teacher at STEPS on Broadway and a former Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre dancer. The RDE honors master teachers—regardless of whether they have degrees or extensive performing experience—by recognizing their ability to teach safely, ethically, and well. Though the registry doesn’t include a step-by-step model of how to teach, “it gives,” says Modelski, “parents the right to ask, ‘So what makes you qualified to train my child?’ ”
The RDE allows teachers to answer that question with confidence. To become a member, Posey says, “Applicants supply extensive information and documentation regarding their educational background, dance education, and performance and teaching experience, which is reviewed by trained evaluators who are qualified dance educators themselves.” RDE teachers possess a proven track record. They demonstrate ethical and professional teaching practices and knowledge of child development, dance science, and dance medicine.
RDE members pay $125 annually, becoming part of an online network of instructors who can safely ask and answer each other’s confidential concerns. They are committed to taking continuing education courses, attending seminars, and staying up to date on teaching methodology advances. To date, the organization numbers nearly 40 members who teach all types of dance and who work in studios, public schools, and as college adjuncts across the United States. Though Posey hopes to expand the membership base, the application and screening process is lengthy, requiring approximately a year.
When Posey began building the RDE, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Modelski says that Posey never faltered in her efforts to develop the organization or in her teaching practice: “She would have fallen over at the barre before she would have taught inappropriately.” Determined to create an organization that allows dance teachers to network and problem solve together “kept me going,” says Posey, who has been cancer free for more than a decade.
Straddling developments in dance medicine, history, journalism, and preservation, as well as federal- and state-level arts education initiatives, Posey’s involvement and contributions are staggering. She does all this without a PhD, a master’s, or even a college degree, making her an autodidact of the best kind. “If you think of a pebble being tossed into a pond and the ripple effect it creates,” says dance teacher Trish Harms, a former Posey School student, “that is Elsa.”
By remaining focused on people while continually learning from others, Posey has embodied a singular philosophy throughout her career: the human potential for growth. With this belief, she gives her students the desire and confidence to become dancers for life. And to the community at large, she serves as a role model of how to stay engaged and make a difference. “Many times you have one teacher who is trained in a village,” says Jane Bonbright, executive director of NDEO and an RDE member. “He or she opens a school. Fifty years later they haven’t learned much beyond the walls of that village.” But like the tendus that Posey teaches daily, “Elsa is constantly stretching and growing,” says Bonbright.
When asked what she wishes for in the field of dance education, Posey replies, “An openness where teachers are not so singularly focused” on their niche, “a free flow of information between all levels of the dance world,” and an understanding that “all people can dance.”
These days, rather than being satisfied with her achievements or writing her memoirs, Posey is looking forward. “My theory is that we are in a time of change; in the future dance will be taught differently.” With Posey and other master educators who think like her steering the way, that theory could become a reality.