During a rainy Thursday afternoon earlier this spring, students at O’Rourke Middle School clamored for the chance to dance.
Shouts of “pick me!” and “no, pick my friend!” rang out across the cafeteria as Dennis Moench hurried around deciding which lucky students to dance on stage with professionals from the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company.
Three dancers from the local company — Laura Teeter, Louisa Barta and Maggie Ciambrone — visited the school and took the students through the history of dance, offering some the opportunity to get on stage with them and learn a few steps of ballet, jazz, tap and modern dance.
The scene had the same energy as when Ellen DeGeneres gives away just about anything on her show; the selected students jumped up and down with excitement and run-walked to the stage.
For Moench, senior director of youth education at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, these scenes have become a regular occurrence.
He started working at SPAC as a summer intern in 2015 after performing in “Mary Poppins” and “Les Miserables” on Broadway. By the end of the summer, SPAC’s former president, Marcia White asked him to take over the education department.
“At that time, we had some educational programming but not a full-time person dedicated to education here at SPAC,” Moench said.
Thus, it was up to Moench to build the department.
“When you train to be an actor, one of the first things you learn is to say yes to everything. That’s the number one rule of improv and I got very accustomed to that so I said ‘yes,’” Moench said.
He based his programming decisions on these goals: “Number one, to expand [and] to reach as many children and adults as possible because we never stop learning, and [number] two, try to enhance the programs as much as possible.”
He started by expanding the Classical Kids program, which was over 20 years in the making when he first took the position. SPAC brought the program to 16 schools in 2015, bringing classical musicians and dancers into schools to give presentations and to offer quite the deal. SPAC gives every student a free lawn pass to see a classical show over the summer, this year it’s “Coppelia” by the New York City Ballet. If the students use the ticket, they get a classical season pass every summer until they graduate high school.
“It was such a great program and a great opportunity that we had a number of schools on a wait list that had wanted the program. So one of the first things that I decided to do was just to expand into as many schools as possible,” Moench said, “At the end of this year, we’ll be in more than 50 schools.”
Classical Kids, which is sponsored by Union College and free for schools to bring in, reaches kids from Albany all the way to Hudson Falls, including the students at O’Rourke Middle School.
While the program has stayed strong, a few years ago, Moench decided he wanted to go a bit deeper, to offer students more of a participatory way to interact with dance.
He reached out to the National Dance Institute, a New York City-based organization that runs a popular dance residency program, teaching 6,000 students in the NYC public school system each week. Moench shadowed the teachers at the NDI to see how their teaching techniques had led to such a successful program.
“They basically gave us the 40 years of knowledge and experience they’ve had in schools and said ‘take it and implement it in Saratoga,’” Moench said. Which is exactly what he did, creating a dance residency program that’s given hundreds of Capital Region students not only a lesson in movement but a boost in confidence.
First school involved
“It’s the highlight [of the year] for fifth graders,” said Sharon D’Agostino, the principal of Malta Ave Elementary School in Ballston Spa.
For the past few winters, around 70 fifth graders at the school, have spent about an hour a week for 10 weeks learning to dance.
“Residency programs in our area are a relatively new thing,” Moench said, “When I came up from New York City, that was news to me because, in New York City, many schools have extended residencies.”
“We were the pilot school,” D’Agostino said. From day one, D’Agostino noticed a transformation. “It builds a cohesive group in the classroom.”
The students learn dances to different genres of music each year. The genre is infused with other aspects of the students’ lessons. They’ll learn about the creation of Motown or rock or jazz music in history class and they’ll learn more songs in that genre in music.
D’Agostino said that the dance residency has become a crucial way to keep the arts in the school. SPAC has registered as a BOCES Arts and Enrichment provider, which allows schools to be reimbursed for bringing the dance residency into schools, making it a bit easier for schools to fund.
“We do so much with STEM,” D’Agostino said. Bringing in the dance residency has helped add the “A” to the acronym.
In recent years, there have been plenty of stories in the news about how the arts are being cut from schools and how the National Endowment for the Arts is losing federal funding.
However, some studies and many arts education advocates say that the arts are needed to make for well-rounded and emotionally healthy students. A recent study conducted by the Houston Education Research Consortium found that students who received a substantial amount of educational arts experiences were less likely to receive disciplinary infractions and were more likely to be compassionate towards others.
D’Agostino has seen this in the dance residency program. She’s also seen the confidence of the students grow.
“They shine at the end,” D’Agostino said.
For Kate Sokolewicz, the residency not only boosted her confidence, but it fostered a love that had been lost.
“It brought back her love of dance,” said Darcy Sokolewicz, Kate’s mom. She participated in the dance residency at Malta Ave this year, as her older sister, Eva, had done in the past.
Sokolewicz said that the residency was perfect for Kate because she wasn’t comparing herself to her sister or to others.
“They’ve created an environment that is collaborative and supportive,” Sokolewicz said.
“It is the social skills, self-esteem and self-confidence that’s the most powerful thing because we’re not looking to train future [professional] dancers. But, just like any other subject, it makes them more well-rounded human beings, so that to me is the most important thing,” Moench said.
Teachers like Moench build those qualities up by celebrating the successes of each student, especially when he/she gets out of their comfort zone.
“The students become role models for each other. A huge part of the program is to build confidence in their dance so when you see a student either take a huge slide or break through then you celebrate that,” Moench said.
It helps that they always have a live band joining them, so Moench and the other teachers don’t have to stop to hit pause or play on a CD player.
“The momentum is constantly building each class. So the students never have a moment to second guess themselves,” Moench said.
The residency has been running at Malta Ave. for the past three years and has gone out into several others around the Capital Region. Although it’s geared for elementary-aged students, Joseph Shaver, an English teacher and the director of the drama club at the Ballston Spa Middle School, has seen the impact of the dance residency.
“They gush over it,” Shaver said. Many students who come to audition for the middle school productions are still talking about the dance residency, even as they reach seventh and eighth grade.
“Dennis is just so talented, giving the [students] confidence and inspiring them to be on stage,” Shaver said.
Eva Sokolewicz, who went through the dance residency in 2017, was so inspired by Moench that she decided to join the drama club as soon as she got to sixth grade. This year, one seventh grader who was involved in the dance residency at Malta Ave, landed the lead role in a production, said Shaver.
“Those students are very lucky to have that program,” Shaver said.
Students like Eva didn’t necessarily want to stop with the dance residency and with the theater club. She wanted another chance to use her dancing shoes and she found it in The Performance Project: Youth in Motion.
Organized by SPAC, the Capital District YMCA, the Saratoga Regional YMCA and the National Dance Institute, it brings 80 kids from ages 8-12 together for a two-week intensive dance education program. It culminates with a performance on SPAC’s stage.
Eva was so excited about it last year that she and her mom headed to their local YMCA at 6 a.m. during the registration period to make sure Eva’s form was in. And looking back, they’re both grateful that they did.
“You can see the confidence building over those two weeks,” Sokolewicz said, “I cannot say enough about [SPAC’s] programs.”
Since he came on board, Moench said that SPAC’s leadership has always been supportive of the educational programs, especially president and CEO Elizabeth Sobol.
She stepped into her leadership role 2016 and has sharpened SPAC’s focus on education and outreach over the last three years.
In 2018, SPAC partnered with more than 90 schools and nonprofits to reach over 38,000 young individuals, according to SPAC. That’s 15,000 more people than in 2017 and both Moench and Sobol hope to see that number rise this year.
“Our educational activities and community outreach have grown exponentially in a mere two years. By 2020, we plan to double the reach of our free arts programming to not only increase our community’s access to world-class performances but also to cultivate the next generation of arts lovers and patrons,” Sobol said in a release.
This summer, SPAC is introducing “Ballet in Fifth” a program that allows fifth-grade students in the Saratoga Springs public school system to take classes with members of the New York City Ballet.
SPAC is also hosting the second Festival of Young Artists this summer, in partnership with Empire State Youth Orchestra, Northeast Ballet Company, the Capital District Youth Chorale and the National Museum of Dance School of the Arts. The first festival, which took place last summer, brought in hundreds of young writers, dancers, singers, musicians, and others for a day of workshops, poetry slams, pop-up performances, and other activities.
This year, the festival will be on June 2 and SPAC is anticipating just as big a crowd.
The event will include a one-hour concert on SPAC’s main stage featuring a dance choreographed by New York City Ballet Principal Dancer and Choreographer Lauren Lovette.
SPAC also offers classes to kids throughout the summer as well as chances to see classical programs for little to no cost, which is crucial to bringing up the next generation of artists, said Moench.
“It’s a gift to us too to be able to provide a life-changing experience to somebody. I know, as an actor, the first time I went to go see a Broadway show was the moment I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I want to do this.’ So I’m sure there are many kids that come to SPAC and have that spark,” Moench said.