Bringing dance to the students of South Philadelphia with 'Dance eXchange'

BalletX dancer Caili Quan with Andrew Jackson School students.

Dance encompasses a broad range of movement. Dance is a performance. Dance is a play. Dance can express emotion, tell a story without words. I remember spending my school days getting excited for my next dance class.  So when BalletX Co-Artistic and Executive Director Christine Cox presented the opportunity to teach dance through the new BalletX afterschool outreach program, Dance eXchange, I jumped at the chance.

Last month, I, along with other members of BalletX and several people from the Philadelphia dance community who signed on to participate in Dance eXchange, were able to work with the National Dance Institute (NDI) during a one week long training residency at Andrew Jackson School in South Philly. NDI was founded by New York City Ballet dancer Jacques d’Amboise in 1976 with the intention of teaching school aged children structured movement and has now grown into a flourishing arts education program. Thanks to the 2013 Knight Arts Challenge, a program of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, PECO, as well as grants from several other foundation sponsors, BalletX was able to bring NDI to Philly for a week to watch them in action and learn from their teaching methods. Our hope is that Dance eXchange will eventually grow to become an associate program of NDI here in Philadelphia.  

Back on February 24th, we observed NDI’s Artistic Associate Tracy Straus and Artistic Director Ellen Weinstein as they led three classes of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders back to back. The two of them managed to keep each class of around 30 kids entertained, engaged and behaved. As an observer and assistant, I too was swept up in their loving and contagious energy. I found myself smiling alongside the students of Andrew Jackson, excited to be a part of it all. Following the morning classes, NDI met with us trainees for a three hour workshop to further analyze, discuss, and digest everything we observed that morning. In the afternoon, I was expecting to continue observing and assisting. Imagine my surprise and terror when they encouraged us to dive right into leading the after school class!  For the rest of the week, Tracy would assign each of the eleven of the Dance eXchange members a part of the class to lead during the after school program. My teaching experience has been limited to teenagers who’ve had years of dance experience. I’ve never taught pure movement class to elementary school students. But I learned very quickly that NDI’s methods work. The base line of NDI’s curriculum starts with presenting a student with a challenge: to learn a dance step and perform it with energy and precision. Their methods keep children engaged by using tools such as games and positive peer mentoring. 

NDI’s training workshop ended on February 28th with a performance at Jackson. Dance eXchange will now continue at Jackson through May, with a final performance on May 22nd. We meet with a group of around 30 student dancers twice a week for one hour after school. We’ve only had 6 sessions but I’ve already seen growth in the students. Because our program is based on a first come first serve basis, all the students who sign up want to be part of the program. Some students were very shy the first day but we knew that underneath the hesitation was a desire to dance. They just needed a little bit of a push. I love watching the kids translate a step to fit their own body. Christine pointed out one girl with a very strong knack for musicality. One 5th grader always puts such a great unique personal groove (NDI would call it “spice”) that turns the step into his own. One of the students told BalletX Associate Artistic Director Tara Keating that she practices her steps every night before she goes to bed. It’s that kind of eagerness and enthusiasm to learn that is inspiring for us as teachers.

I believe teaching children dance education is extremely beneficial. They learn how to direct their youthful energy towards learning a skill that happens to be physical and mental. First and foremost, dance teaches discipline. In order to carry out a step, the child must develop the control to listen, comprehend, and perform. It is nearly impossible to learn to dance without discipline. Learning how to dance can influence a child beyond the hour we have dancing together at Dance eXchange. They can use the discipline they learn in dance class and apply that discipline to the rest of their lives. 

It’s so rewarding to watch a child turn into a dancer. It happens in a split second. You present them with the task of moving their body in a certain way and they go for it. It’s even more rewarding for the students who take a little bit longer to catch on. Watching that light bulb turn on is incredible.

I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to share my experience and my love of dance with the students of Andrew Jackson through Dance eXchange.  The reason NDI has grown to reach 6,000 kids a week in public schools across New York City is because learning dance is not only physically challenging, it fosters physical and mental discipline and should be offered as an option for all students.  I’m looking forward to the upcoming weeks at Andrew Jackson School and I hope that BalletX and Dance eXchange accomplishes its goal and continues to bring dance, fun and discipline to the students of Philadelphia.

Dance eXchange concludes on May 22nd with a final performance by the Jackson students at Caplan Center for the Performing Arts, Terra Hall, University of the Arts from 6:30-7:15pm. This performance is free and open to the public. Visit for additional information. 

About Caili Quan

Caili Quan is a native of Guam. She began her dance training with John Grensback and Bettina Sanzotta. At the age of 16 she moved to New York City to continue her training at Ballet Academy East under the direction of Darla Hoover. In 2007 she was a trainee with Richmond Ballet, and in 2009 received an apprenticeship with North Carolina Dance Theatre under Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride. She danced with First State Ballet Theatre from 2010-2012 under the direction of Pasha Kambalov where she was given the opportunity to dance roles such as Gypsy Queen in Don Quixote and Violente Fairy in Sleeping Beauty. She has performed at Triskelion Arts, Symphony Space, and One World Symphony in New York. This is her second season with BalletX.

Dance eXchange has been made possible by support from the 2013 Knight Arts Challenge, a program of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and PECO, lead corporate sponsor, as well as by additional grants from the Leo Model Foundation, Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation, Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation, Zeldin Family Foundation, and the Virginia & Harvey Kimmel Arts Education Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation. Special thanks to University of the Arts, performance partner.