by Abe Louise Young
Philadelphia, PA—Walkers in downtown Philly must have been astonished. On a rainy day in May, the streets were alive with dancing teenagers.
Sixty-five students in teacher Joshua Block’s English classes at Science Leadership Academy teamed up with Leah Stein Dance Company, to “make dances spontaneously, rigorously, on location, in collaboration, in connection with the moment.”
In just a week and a half of intensive workshops, the tenth-grade students at this diverse magnet school created a “Hidden City Festival.” The equation was simple: site + sound + movement = dance. Performances took place every ten minutes for two hours, attracting a crowd of spectators. A map of performances over a five-block radius brought the entire school and residents of the neighborhood to watch.
Some performed drums with upside-down 5-gallon plastic buckets, freezing like marionettes when trolleys came, and moving again as they pulled away. Some students darted behind trees, appearing and disappearing like shadows; some made music with old Snapple bottles rubbed over metal grates. One group personified a butterfly going through evolution, and another used hip-hop dance to mirror the energy of a heavily-trafficked intersection.
Robbie Glynn, 17, writes, “One of the points of this project was to get people to notice the site in a way they never saw it before. If you just walk past the spot, you might look at it and think that it’s just a small abandoned section of gravel. But when we were presenting there, everyone was really paying attention…”
Jenny, 16, says, “While doing this, we learned how to take a site that maybe wouldn’t be so interesting, and made it creative and the process fun to do. Some schools will make you learn about something then write a paper. Here, we got to see a site, and pull something out of it. We used the nature around us. We did it in a way where we could move. We personified the past and the future, and made it a whole.”
Site+Sound+Movement = Dance
The learning started at the Armory in Philadelphia, a raw building with a huge open space. There, Leah Stein introduced students to the concept of site-specific performance.
Taylor V., 16, sums it up: “I learned that freedom is the ability to express yourself in any way that you choose to.”
Block describes, “They fanned out with their journals and had to write about something in the space that interested them. They were all over the large expanse of the building. Then they had to create a motion that goes with that space and a sound.
Some students were near very large push brooms, and their motion was pushing the broom in unique way. Another student was near a chain-link fence, and his sound and motion was grabbing on to the fence and shaking it. Everyone at once was doing sound and motion in this huge space.
Then we started grouping people together and they had to determine an order, and transitions between their pieces. It was creative and fun, and students had a lot of ownership over their pieces.”
Once the students were comfortable with the notion of using a space to create dance, they went out into downtown Philadelphia.
Making the Dances, Day By Day
Here’s Block’s run-down of the process:
“Day One: First they had to examine a site, tuning to their site. They had to free-write at their sites. Everyone went out to within five blocks of the school.
Day Two: I gave them a cheat sheet of things Leah had emphasized about the process. Site –specific means that your performance is integrally linked to the site. Your performance would not make sense without the site. I emphasized that we were not making a skit but that they needed to work with skills of observation and expression. Then we went out.
Day Three: Negotiating with neighbors. We would have people come out and sit on their stoop and watch it and love it. They were fascinated. Some others were really crabby and like, “What are you doing?” Leah and other dancers from her Company would bike and skateboard around to visit the different student groups as they were creating their pieces.
Day Four: We paired the groups up and they visited each other at their sites to give each other feedback. One group was working in an underground trolley stop and was confronted by the transit police. To their great credit, they negotiated with the transit police and got permission to use the site.
Day Five: The Performances! One of the rainiest days of that spring. Performers would pop up out of nowhere and create this amazing piece in front of your eyes. We broke down so many barriers in this project. Where does the classroom exist? What does it mean to be a thoughtful, expressive person? You wouldn’t look at a student and say, Wow, they could be an incredible dancer, but when they did their performances, you’d be awestruck.”
If there was one thing that all of the dancers in the Hidden City Festival gained, Taylor T., 16, says it’s this: “We learned how to think differently.”
High school students + professional artists + community space = learning sounds like a great equation.
Links to Student Portfolios: Read What Students Have To Say About the Project
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator