Dance: An Awakening

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Integrating dance with method and content can be quite a challenge, but in this article from Momentum, Jeanette Sawaya Lamb and Rick Wagoner describe a powerful learning experience that culminates in a dance performance entitled Awakenings. Using the theme of human rights and injustices in the world, the English department participates through reading and writing poetry on that theme. This activity serves as an excellent example of a bodily-kinesthetic activity that embraces a spiritual dimension. Students research the content and choreograph the performance. The article also describes the dance curriculum of Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Utah.

Ms. Sawaya Lamb teaches dance at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Wagoner, a former technical director at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, is now assistant principal at Saint Vincent School in Salt Lake City.

A powerful learning experience can take place when the art of dance is perceived as integral to the student's total development.

When Christian values and the arts are combined, students are empowered to do something valuable with their performance and their lives. This was demonstrated recently during Awakenings, the spring dance performance at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In exploring the dance concert's theme of human rights, junior and senior dancers and choreographers improved their understanding of the injustices of the world and reexamined their feelings and convictions about these injustices.

For example, the junior advanced class, while rehearsing a piece about racism, found a connection between their choreography and Langston Hughes' poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which they had studied in English class. We took advantage of the students' insight by inviting Tom Oden, English department chairperson, to the class to discuss human rights issues in the poem. The result was a deepening of the young peoples' understanding of racism and an intensification of the meaning informing their choreography.

Another significant human rights issue in society today is AIDS. Capitalizing on the success of Oden's guest appearance, we invited two members of the Utah AIDS Foundation to dance class to share their life stories as well as information about this terrible disease. So moved were the dancers that they held a food drive for the foundation in conjunction with their spring performance.

After many such research projects and discussions, the students began to choreograph works addressing AIDS, homeless children, sexism, racism and all manner of prejudice encountered in contemporary society.

To complete the choreography process, we invited another English teacher, Tim Dolan, to help the students write their own poetry about human rights, based on their research and personal insights. We wove the student's poetry and choreography together, producing a powerful statement about taking a stand for the rights of all people.

The choice of the Awakenings theme and the interdisciplinary and community outreach activities reinforcing the dance performance was intentional. In the past 12 years, we have been part of and witness to a major shift in the perception of our performing arts department.

Although a very solid performing arts program has been in place during that time, it was not recognized as an integral part of the school's academic studies. Today our program is both well-respected artistically and integral to the core curriculum.

At one level, this integration is easy to explain. As performers, we are the most visible sign of the school's Christian mission. It follows that our dedication to and belief in this mission must be evident in all aspects of our program. Having achieved that goal, the performing arts become a part of the school's raison d'etre.

The central tenet of our mission statement is to develop all aspects of the person--physical, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal and intellectual. These developmental needs are central to our expectations when a student is involved in a dance production.

Dance, by its very nature, demands physical movement and calls forth the emotions. The study and performance of sacred and liturgical dance builds an awareness of spirituality.

In conducting their own rehearsals and cooperatively evaluating each other's work, our choreographers develop leadership and interpersonal skills. Each dancer builds these same skills by making a commitment to being on time and working effectively in rehearsals, and by giving totally of themselves in performance.

Academically, the school's mission statement calls us to seek an interdisciplinary curriculum imbued with Christian values, such as those vividly demonstrated in the Awakenings concert. In preparing all of our performances, we invite faculty from various academic departments to help our dancers achieve a deeper intellectual understanding of the meaning of their work.

The mission statement also encourages collaboration with outside agencies, businesses and institutions of higher education to build student awareness of the applications of their education in the world outside of Judge Memorial.

We have been fortunate in building remarkable relationships both with professional dancers and the Utah Arts Council. The department has received many grants, making it possible to invite professional dancers and dance companies for one-to-two-week residencies to conduct master classes for our students.

This past spring Michael James, a professional dancer with the Repertory Dance Theatre, not only choreographed for but also performed with our students in Awakenings. In addition, all junior and senior students may travel either to New York City or San Francisco, on alternating years, to experience classes in professional studios such as Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor.

The development of all these areas of school mission has been gradual. We have worked hard each year to improve our program and earn the respect of our fellow teachers and administrators at Judge Memorial.

Beginning with the graduating class of 1998, a performing arts credit will be a requirement for graduation. The students may fulfill this requirement by taking one year of dance, drama, music, visual arts or debate.

The Judge Memorial dance curriculum, a four-year program, follows a sequence from freshman through senior years, and is designed to allow entry at all levels.

Freshman dance is an exploration of all types of movement, with an emphasis on creative or modern dance. This course conditions the body and mind for dance, with a special focus on acquiring skill in fundamental axial and locomotive movements.

Sophomore dance focuses on technical proficiency, choreography, improvisation and a historical overview of the art, beginning with primitive dance and concluding with contemporary forms.

Liturgical and sacred dance are studied in depth, and students have the opportunity to dance in the Junior Class Prayer Service in the spring. The year's study culminates with a lecture demonstration about the process of dance and choreography.

Junior and senior years are divided between two categories: advanced dance for the technically proficient and creatively developed dancer, and dance production for the student who is taking dance for the first time.

Advanced dance offers a multitude of performance opportunities in stage productions, lecture demonstrations, children's workshops and liturgical dance, while dance production focuses on stage performance, liturgical dance and children's workshops.

While only a few male students take dance classes each year, as many as 30 participate in the annual spring performance. And this year one of our male dancers, Sean McMahon, received a dance scholarship to Ohio University.

People often ask if this kind of dedication to the performing arts is detrimental to a student's overall achievement in school. To avoid this possibility, we emphasize that a student cannot excel at extracurricular activities and be neglectful of academic studies.

In the dance department, we stress the importance of students being equally responsible for each facet of their lives, rather than focusing on dance at the expense of everything else. Many students have commented that their grades go up during the quarter of a major performance because the demands of the performance force them to be more responsible and organized with their time.

Judge Memorial's philosophy regarding the performing arts and its lived experience in dance was expressed in Awakenings, which deeply affected both the dancers and their audience.

That response was articulated in a letter received from Mr. Drew Browning, a member of the dance arts advisory panel for the Utah Arts Council:

Most of all, I came away from the performance feeling a renewed sense of hope: for young people to demonstrate such a commitment to the noble principles embodied in Awakenings reassures me that there are those with whom the future of humankind can be entrusted.

The arts embrace the mission of Judge Memorial Catholic High School in many ways. In the dance department, the journey taken by the cast from their first rehearsal to the night of a performance can be one of the most powerful learning experiences of their lives.

The path we take involves the total development of the students, working as a team to send a message to the audience. The goal of our performances, whether in the studio, at workshops or on the stage, is to make a difference in the world.


This article originally appeared in Momentum, the journal of the National Catholic Education Association. It is reprinted here by permission of the NCEA. For more information about the NCEA, go to their web site at

Published August 1, 1996.