A Step Ahead: Fusionworks’ public school residencies teach academic concepts through modern dance
by Karen White
Veteran modern dancer, choreographer, and Fusionworks Dance Company founder Deb Meunier has a philosophy: “You can learn just about anything in life through moving, because you are expressing your abstract thoughts about a topic in the most primal way—through your own body.”
Or to put it another way, if you need to teach kids about ocean currents, why not have them move the way an ocean current would?
The educational power of movement serves as the foundation of Locally Grown, a residency program through which Fusionworks uses modern dance to take schoolchildren on an academic journey into subjects such as marine life, immigration, haiku, and earthquakes. Twice a week for five to seven weeks, the dancers visit public schools in the Providence, Rhode Island, area where they lead discussion and movement sessions, hand out homework assignments, and guide the children in choreography creation. Each residency ends with a public concert—in a theater, for a paying audience—that features the children in dance pieces they created based on the residency’s educational focus.
Performance videos from Locally Grown concerts show high school students in “Graviton,” a piece about the four forces of nature. The students rise, then sink in a contraction, run and spin in concentric circles, leap and roll. In “Balanced Reaction,” junior high students collapse and expand a circle shape as they explore the conservation of mass. In “Making Waves,” elementary students wave their arms fluidly, run in place, and move in a group as they depict oceanic plant and animal life.
“This all started with a simple seed many years ago because I love to learn,” Meunier says. “What rocks my boat is watching these kids of all ages, [many of them] non-dancers, have such pride of ownership in creating art. I want them to understand you don’t have to be an artist to be a creative thinker.”
Among dance genres, according to Meunier, modern dance is particularly well suited for turning academic topics such as scientific theories into abstract movement. Fusionworks’ brand of modern—a hybrid of the traditional modern lexicon that some might call contemporary, Meunier says—is “wide open and intellectual; there is so much possibility in the form.”
Setting the stage
Education has long been on Meunier’s mind. She opened a school, Fusionworks Dance Academy, in 1978. In 1987 she founded the Fusionworks professional modern dance repertory company with a dual mission of performance and education. Meunier believes that she and her dancers are both curators and advocates of modern dance, and as such have a responsibility to keep the art form vital and alive by nurturing and educating the next generation.
Shortly after its formation, the company stepped into education with what Meunier calls “one-outs”—single visits to a school that included a short movement workshop plus a company performance. Now called “assembly performances,” these still-operating workshops are geared toward grades 3 and up and are connected to an academic topic in history, literacy, or science. Public school teachers receive study guide materials in advance and each 35-minute assembly includes explanations of modern dance fundamentals such as canons and gestures; a company performance; and a Q&A. Meunier hopes to grow this program, which fluctuates between five and 15 assemblies a year, by reaching out to schools in neighboring Massachusetts.
One-outs were just a first step. Meunier wanted to offer a connection that was deeper and longer lasting and in the late 1990s she undertook her first residency, working with students at Lonsdale Elementary School in Lincoln, Rhode Island, on an “Oceans Motion” curriculum. Over the years she continued to refine the format, researching how best to connect movement to the academic lesson and creating a set methodology. It wasn’t until the past decade, though, that public school educators became so sold on the residencies’ value that they began inviting Fusionworks to return again and again, Meunier says.
Between January and April of this year, Locally Grown residencies will run in six Rhode Island schools: two elementary, two middle, and two high schools. One, the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket, is arts based and has been involved in Fusionworks residencies for seven years. Participating students in the other schools are mostly non-dancers.
Residencies in action
Before each residency begins, Meunier works with the class’ academic teacher to develop the curriculum around a theme—last year, for example, high school programs delved into the global refugee crisis; this year, the focus is on influential women in the arts and sciences.
Twice a week, a Fusionworks education team (Meunier and/or one or more of her dancers) runs sessions that last from one hour to one hour and a half in whatever school space is available. Fusionworks educators guide students through a warm-up, instruction in basic tenets of modern dance (flat back, roll down, tendu, curved spine, etc.), group topic discussions, and choreography creation. Since class size generally runs around 25, students work in small groups to create movement that will be shaped by the Fusionworks educators into a performance piece.
Students are further drawn into the subject through creative homework assignments. For example, discussions about the escalating crisis in Syria considered the plight of refugees, who often flee war zones with little other than the clothing they are wearing and what they can carry. Students were instructed to return the next session with a backpack or sack filled with items they might bring when faced with a similar situation.
When the packs and the contents—from cellphones to pillows to family photographs—were then used as props in creating the dance, students began to ask questions and make connections. How useful would a device be in a refugee camp with no electricity? Is a photograph more or less important than food? “I could see [the students’] eyes opening,” Meunier says. “They would say, ‘Miss Deb, I never knew.’ They began really understanding a topic through dance.”
Of Fusionworks’ nine dancers, six are on the education team. While a desire to teach isn’t a prerequisite for company members, Meunier feels so strongly about the educational mission that she discusses it with potential dancers during callbacks. “This is the creature of Fusionworks, so if a dancer wants to come in here, he or she needs to know that part of what we do is educational work,” she says, adding that seven company members also teach dance at local studios.
Company dancers and public school students alike are enriched by the residencies. Stephanie Stanford Shaw, director and choreographer for the Fusionworks II junior company, has worked with the education team since the ’90s. Teaching in the residencies has taught her how to address performance “from the brain and the heart,” she says.
“I was all about the technical, and that’s how I liked to dance,” says Shaw, who received a BFA in dance from Boston Conservatory. “But the more I work with kids [in the residencies] and see them making up crazy stuff, their willingness to go outside the box made me rethink how I viewed movement for myself. I’m now less about technique and more about interpretation.”
Education team members adjust quickly to the parameters of working in a public school setting, from dealing with non-dancers to keeping kids focused despite intercom announcements and other interruptions to working within strict time limits. Organization and preparation keep education team members on message; enthusiastic principals and classroom teachers are also vital to each residency’s success.
While the schools don’t require it, all residencies are heavily documented. Each topic’s curriculum—including lesson plans, homework assignments, and support materials—is written down. Stringent documentation not only allows the Fusionworks team to repeat a curriculum with a new school but is helpful when applying for grants or donations to support the company’s educational mission.
Fusionworks and the public schools share the cost of each residency based on a three-year sliding scale: in the first year, Fusionworks covers 75 percent and the school 25 percent; in the second year, the cost is split 50/50; by the third year, the school pays 75 percent.
The sliding scale not only allows school principals to build residency costs into future budgets, but by picking up the lion’s share of the first year, Fusionworks demonstrates faith in its program. “We are saying, ‘We believe in this so much we know you will want to continue with it [in future years],’ ” Meunier says.
Performance assembly fees are generally covered by a school’s parent-teacher organization or activities fund.
Making an impact
Each Locally Grown residency ends with a concert featuring the student-created works plus a performance by the Fusionworks company. Students get the full performance experience, including a dress rehearsal, costumes, and professional lighting. Older students are thrilled to be included in the company’s warm-up, Meunier says. For many of the schoolchildren, it’s their first time onstage. (Occasionally, because of expense, a school will opt for an in-school showing for family and friends.)
This spring’s Locally Grown show will be held April 2 at 3 p.m. in McVinney Auditorium in Providence, and Meunier is looking forward to standing in the theater’s foyer and hearing success stories about the residencies. “Each year, there is a student who moves my heart,” she says, recalling one boy, known for being disruptive, who astonished his principal and teachers by cooperating with his classmates during the residency lessons and performance. “We are a small modern dance company, but our impact in education is a pretty good-sized footprint. If we can open the minds of kids and show them how they can look at the world through a different lens, that’s a really good thing.”
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.