PINK TIGHTS AND BALLET SLIPPERS are not required for Kathryn Irey’s “bone-head” class. Most students wear multi colored socks and ragged layers of sweat pants. She welcomes adults with no dance training to this pre ballet class. Flashing a mischievous grin, she soon has them doing wild hand flings and body swings as well as standard tendus and plies. Her ballet students often drop into bone-head for a warm-up before their advanced class of rigorous floor work. She’s been known to teach an entire class in German and have students do barre work with their eyes closed.
Some who’ve passed through Irey’s Stage 7 School of Dance in San Diego have become professional dancers and educators: Cihtli “La Gallardi” Ocampo is an internationally known Flamenco dancer; Cori Olinghouse now dances with the Trisha Brown Dance Company in New York; Rachel Sinclair is a respected dance teacher in England. But Irey may be making the biggest impact in a setting where she has little chance of developing serious dancers: elementary school classrooms.
“I’ve been using dance as an educational tool in elementary schools for several decades,” Irey says. “The integrative qualities of dance are powerful. Dance uses linguistic wisdom, logic, and math. It’s highly structured. It uses music and spatial wisdom. It’s both interpersonal and intra personal, so the applications in early childhood education and special education are vast.”
Irey received her training at the Arts Educational Trust and with Maria Fay in London, as well as at Canada’s National Ballet School where she was deeply influenced by Betty Oliphant. She performed with the Ballett Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Germany, touring throughout Europe and the United States for 10 years. In 1983, she started Stage 7 in San Diego and for more than 25 years has devoted her considerable energies to arts education as a master teaching artist for San Diego Institute for Arts Education and the San Diego Dance Institute, and as adjunct faculty member at San Diego State University.
“A weather dance is great for K through second grade,” Irey says, explaining that she often starts with a roll of butcher paper and magic markers. “In San Diego we usually start with a sun. We draw a circle with radiating lines and I ask, ‘How many sun movements would you like to do?’ A child may make a big circle with his arms and shoot them out like the rays of light. Then I say, ‘What about lightning? How does lightning move?’ They do quick leaps with jagged arms. We add music and all of these kids begin to move and learn. Even very shy children begin to join the process.”
In addition to teaching ballet for San Diego State University’s department of music and dance, she teaches a liberal arts course, “Dance for Children,” on the inclusion of standards-based dance in the elementary school classroom. To be a dance specialist in California public schools, you need a degree in physical education, but no certification in dance. Irey says standards are being developed and she prepares the new teachers who leave her course for this eventual reality.
Among other things, her students learn that touch exercises can help a teacher maintain control and attention in the classroom. “If you ask a bunch of kids to move to another part of the room,” she says, “they lose concentration and it takes forever to get them back into control. But if you tell them to touch their partner with a finger and then move, that’s better than ropes and duct tape! I also like the balloon trick. I ask children to pretend they’re inside a balloon when they move to keep them from touching others, instead of constantly saying ‘don’t touch anyone,’ or ‘don’t hit anyone,’ or ‘settle down.'”
It’s important to remember that the elementary classroom is different from the dance studio, Irey says. “There is an assumption in the studio that dance is for dance’s sake,” she says. “But in the school classroom, teachers need to link dance with the curriculum for it to have meaning. There needs to be context. You can’t ask a third-grader to do passe simply to do it. You must ask him or her to do passe because it looks like a bird, or something.”
“Contralateral issues are one of the most important developmental things to watch for with both children and adult students,” she says, referring to her study of Irmgard Bartenieff. “Coordinating the right arm with the left leg sounds simple, but some people really have trouble and it’s key to connecting the two sides of the brain. One of the best exercises for this is marching. March to the cafeteria, march to the gym. It’s also good to march backward, to really challenge what we think is familiar. I have an adult student who said ‘I’m not coordinated,’ and sure enough, she marches with her right leg and right arm.”
It doesn’t bother Irey that most of her students will never perform professionally. Her goal is to share the joy of movement with people of all ages and abilities. “Dancing is moving with an aesthetic intention,” says Irey. “When you study dance, you can begin to feel powerful. And an empowered individual can do great things. I like to ask a room full of children, ‘raise your hand if you’ve ever danced when nobody was looking,’ and every little hand goes up. That’s where it starts.”
Kris Eitland’s arts writing has appeared in SanDiegoTheatreScene.com, SanDiego.com and San Diego CityBeat.