West Park NY
“There is nothing more satisfying than turning a classroom of kids sitting at desks into a playground,” says Jessie. “We get silly and turn into movement explorers.”
Jessie’s teaching career began in 1984, as a high school junior, when she began assisting her dance teacher. Collaborative and generous, Jessie believes that dance and movement should be core elements in the education of all children. In addition to teaching in schools as an artist-in-residence, she runs her own school, Barefoot Dance Center, which she founded in 2003. “We are a supportive community of dancers focusing on healthy alignment, joy, and self-expression. In an area filled with dance competition schools that often over-sexualize girls and turn dance into a super-sport, our center is a haven for children to become dance artists.”
“All children can find joy in learning and creating as long as the teacher brings a few crucial elements into the classroom or studio,” says Jessie. “First, we need to feel passionately about, and have knowledge of, what we are teaching. Second, we must supply students with the tools and space they need to succeed. Third, we should challenge and encourage students to go further than they think they can. Last and most important, we must respect and trust our students.”
How do you produce a vibrant learning environment?
“First, create a safe space, physically safe, with simple rules about how to use it, so everyone knows where everyone else is. Within this structure, students become aware of their bodies and learn to find the open pathways in the room.” Listening is also key, and valuing all creative ideas. “I put the power in their hands a lot of the time; the dances students perform come from them.” Non-competitive play is also vital: “How many ways can you turn? How do we make 21 different turns, for 21 different students?” Music is huge: “I use unfamiliar music so students don’t associate popular movements with popular songs. You don’t have to dance like anybody else; dance your own dance instead of mimicking someone.” The environment also has to be comfortable, “where they feel worthy, supported, nurtured, unique.”
How do you encourage youth leadership?
“I am much more invested and interested in witnessing my students develop their own work rather than copy someone else. I place my trust in them and they, in turn, trust themselves. I guide them through the process, and help them create an original dance.” Older students have the opportunity to assist teachers in classes for younger children. “They develop confidence and experience, as well as sweet relationships with one another.” Many of the older students also buddy with the younger ones during student concerts. “This involves big kids reading stories to little kids backstage, offering laps to the little ones, and helping them on and off stage.” Jessie also invites alumni to return to Barefoot as guest choreographers.
How have you evolved as a teacher?
“I’ve become more trusting of my students,” says Jessie. “The work is far more interesting if you listen to each other, and let the dance develop. I’m more comfortable as a teacher now, so it’s easier to hand over the reins to kids. Whatever they come up with will be amazing — every single time! — and so much cooler than anything I dream up.”