NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Gina D'Antonio-Spears, Dance Educator at Portage Park Elementary, Chicago Public Schools. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
My first exposure to dance education in K-12 schools
When I was growing up in Raleigh NC back in the 1980’s, I did not discover that dance was taught in K-12 schools until I started high school. When I began high school, I learned that our prestigious magnet school offered dance, and I knew I had to go there. I was surrounded by high achieving students who wanted to become doctors and lawyers, but the reason I was there was because I wanted to dance. This was when I realized that an independent sector dance studio was not the only place where someone could teach dance.
I studied dance in college with the goal of performing in a professional dance company, but my parents encouraged me to get my teaching degree while I was in college, so I obliged. I knew that after performing, I would want to teach. My senior year was hectic because getting a dance education degree was essentially having a double major. I was producing my senior dance concert while I was student teaching. Looking back, I see that I was learning how to multitask, find balance, and stay organized.
How I came to teaching dance in a K-12 school
Upon graduation, I joined a dance company as planned, but I continued teaching in dance studios to make some extra income. I worked at five different studios and community centers, driving all over Northern Virginia and Maryland to their various locations. Then I got sick and needed healthcare, so I got a job as an assistant teacher at a daycare center so I could have health insurance. It was a hectic year, to say the least!
The next four years were no different, juggling the life of a performer with teaching dance. Teaching in dance studios became the way I paid my bills while I pieced together small performing gigs, took dance classes on scholarship, and went to auditions. While I was teaching at a variety of places on a part time basis, I ended up getting a job at a temp agency to find a full time job with benefits and health insurance. I was living a seriously busy life juggling dance opportunities, plus working a corporate job to pay bills and have health insurance.
I kept the teaching certificate that I had earned in college in my back pocket, I suppose for a “rainy day.” Looking back with 50 year-old wisdom, I shake my head. What a crazy way to make ends meet while pursuing my dream! One day, while I was looking through the newspaper for an apartment, I noticed a job posting for a dance teacher in Chicago Public Schools. I applied and didn’t get the job, but I became determined to find a position in CPS and stop balancing so many part-time jobs to pay my bills. I thought back to my high school dance teacher, thinking about how much I would love a job teaching dance in a school. I finally secured a job in an elementary school in Chicago, and I was able to keep performing and taking dance classes in the evening.
Fast forward twenty years, and I am still teaching dance in Chicago Public Schools. I have health and life insurance, a pension, and I am saving additional money for retirement and for my kids to go to college. That would not have been possible working part time at several different dance studios. Once I got married and started a family, I found that I needed the stability that teaching in K-12 provided, and I never looked back.
But there are so many more perks to this job that make it the best possible job for me.
Why I love teaching dance in K-12 schools
I teach Pre-K through eighth grade dance at a public elementary school. Many of my students would not have the opportunity to experience dance outside of school, which means I am their first (and only) exposure to dance. I do not take this responsibility lightly and try to make my classes a positive experience for all. Students in my school take dance every year through fourth grade, which means I have the pleasure of taking part in their education for up to six years. In fifth through eighth grade, we have arts electives, so I work with students who really love to dance. Many of them take the dance elective for all four years. To say I am a teary-eyed dance mama on their graduation day is an understatement!
Although I loved teaching dance technique in the studio, I really love being able to develop my own curriculum at my school. Our state standards (adopted from the National Core Arts Standards in Dance) allow me to create and develop my curriculum to meet the interests of my students. For example, when my students first became obsessed with TikTok dance videos and Fortnite dances, I created a unit called Iconic Dances, Past and Present. Each student was tasked with learning an iconic dance from the past and teaching it to the class – the moonwalk, the electric slide, the cabbage patch, the charleston, and more. We discussed what makes these dances iconic, and I was pleased to see how the students connected the dances to some of the dances they were seeing today. Then we learned some of the current dances, and had great discussions about whether or not people would be doing the Renegade ten or twenty years from now…is it “iconic?” Another favorite unit draws a timeline from Lester Horton through Alvin Ailey, where students have the opportunity to choreograph movements to tell their own “blood memories.” (Ailey described his masterwork Revelations as the story of his blood memories.)
Why I plan to stay in K-12 education as a dance teacher
I appreciate the stability that teaching dance in the K-12 setting has provided me and my family. However, this is not why I have stayed in this line of teaching for over twenty years. I truly love teaching dance in a public school. I love watching my students grow up, giving them the opportunity to discover their artistry, and sharing the joy of movement with each and every student. Teaching dance in K-12 schools has been the joy of my career and I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else.
Gina D'Antonio-Spears has been teaching dance in Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years. She is currently developing a new dance program at Portage Park Elementary, a PreK through eighth grade school. Gina is a teacher- leader in a variety of capacities, leading professional development, co-facilitating the dance community of practice, and mentoring new teachers in her district. She has also presented workshops for IAHPERD, IL-DEO, local arts organizations, and NDEO. She has been a mentor for all six cohorts of the NDEO Mentorship Program. Gina recently co-authored an article in Dance Education in Practice on SEL in the dance classroom. She has a BFA in Dance Education from Shenandoah University and a MEd in Educational Leadership from American College of Education. Teaching students is her joy, teaching teachers is her passion.
Photo credits (from top to bottom): All photos courtesy of Gina D'Antonio Gina Spears, Kristin Heinichen, Anna Pyne, James Spears