Episode 29: STEM + Arts Series | A Conversation with Mr. Dance | Chris Roberts
Mr. Dance’s dance background began as a carpool dad for his daughter’s dance classes where he sat on the sidelines and graded papers. Eventually, he saw dance as essential for his own students to engage creatively in embodied learning. With encouragement from strong female dance teachers he took advantage of additional dance workshops until he became a requested professional development dance teacher himself.
Links Mentioned In This Episode:
- The Brain Dance by Anne Green Gilbert
- Utah Teaching Artist Roster
- Building an Arts-Rich School
- Performances & Exhibitions
- First Steps in Teaching Creative Dance to Children by Mary Joyce
- Dance Integration—36 Dance Lesson Plans for Science and Mathematics by Kaufmann & Dehline
- Jana Shumway Dance Lesson Plan - Utah Animals
- Creative Dance Integration Movement Resource
- Tricks for Using Picture Books for Dance
- Water Dance by Thomas Locker (Bookshop.org)
- Art Should Be a Habit, Not a Luxury by Arthur C. Brooks
Who is Mr. Dance? Meet Provo City School District’s Arts Coach, Chris Roberts
Heather Francis and Tina McCulloch have been working with Mr. Dance for over 10 years. Chris gave Heather her first teaching job out of college at Rees Elementary. Chris taught Tina the Brain Dance, which created a big change in her third-grade students.
Now retired, Chris was the Beverley Taylor Sorenson (BTS) arts integration coach for Provo City School District for over 20 years. He worked to facilitate the BTS grant through collaborating with principals and supporting BTS arts educators. As the Provo City School District arts coordinator, Chris supported arts-integrated classroom activities and professional development for Pre-K–12th-grade drama, music, visual art, and dance teachers.
Mr. Dance Supports the Arts in Schools by Teaching Students in Classrooms and Teachers in Professional Development
Beginning with no job description, Chris made a flier of skills and activities he could offer to teachers as a district arts coach. He went to all 13 elementary schools, and hand-delivered a flier in every teacher’s box. He “had a few bites.” Those few initial interactions rapidly snowballed: now, Chris is a high-demand educator, packing as much Pre-K-6th grade dance integration as he can into his limited 30-hour workweek.
- Learn and share information
- Highlight BTS educators across the district to promote the arts
- Support educators in creating and publicizing school arts nights, performances, and exhibitions.
For example, Chris recently assisted in planning a district-wide dance concert involving all the students in all Provo’s secondary schools and two elementary schools. Ballroom, creative, and modern dance were included. It was an incredible experience for the elementary students—“just amazing that they got to go to Provo High School and dance in front of a full house of families and friends.” This was a magnetic performance bursting with positive energy that was felt by each participant and audience member. Tina recounts, “Chris planted in the hearts of these little elementary students that this is a lifestyle. This is a way I can carry the arts throughout my life, and the positive energy feeds on the arts and makes a positive cycle for artful living.”
“Chris is amazing. He has a way of working with students and teachers to help them become more aware of their bodies and minds. And to integrate core content into his kinesthetic dance activities. He didn't come from a dance background originally, which makes his story even cooler. And I think it's helpful because he knows how to approach students who also don't come from a dance background.”
Mr. Dance Wasn’t a Dancer: Dance Integration is for Everyone
Chris was the carpool dad for his daughter, who joined BYU’s Children’s Creative Dance Program beginning at age 3. Chris’ wife supported his hobby of teaching by working in the business world. Instead of sitting in the car, Chris observed his daughter’s dance class and corrected papers. He listened and watched Miriam Bowen teach the class for three years and witnessed his daughter develop creativity, communication, and problem-solving skills. Finally, it clicked: “Well, that's exactly what I want for my students.”
Chris wrote a grant. Doris Trujillo, who is a teaching artist, visited his school for 10 days. As a parting gift, Doris gave Chris First Steps in Teaching Creative Dance to Children by Mary Joyce. The following week, Chris went to class holding that book—with ZERO experience teaching dance. He explains: “I read what Mary Joyce wrote in the book to tell the students. I read it, and they did it. Then I read the next thing, and then they did it, and then I read the next thing, and they did it. It was amazing!” Chris’ positive momentum kept on dancing: he attended dance integration workshops sponsored by the State; traveled to Seattle to learn from Anne Green Gilbert’s two-week dance workshop; began teaching dance workshops to teachers. The “powerful women” who taught Chris to dance have been a momentous source for growth and influence for his development from a carpool-dad-turned-novice-dancer to ‘Mr. Dance.’
What Happens When Teachers “Let the ego go.”
Chris’s advice to teachers out there: “Do not be afraid of being the fool. You have to let your ego go. It's so important to bring dance to these kids.” Letting the ego go helps create an atmosphere of “Yes! I can do this!” for every student, no matter their dance experience or level of self-confidence, even the reluctant students who cling to the classroom walls. Chris’s lived experience learning to integrate dance—his journey of transforming from a ‘regular’ classroom teacher to ‘Mr. Dance’—models this very “Yes, I can. I can do it!” attitude.
Additionally, listeners, the way Chris held his posture as he described the way he used Mary Joyce’s book—holding his hand out in front of him as if reading aloud from a book—was full of energy and purpose. For the teachers who believe, “I am not a dancer. I am not comfortable in my body or expressing things using my body,” Chris’s example as a teacher who began as a complete novice serves as a totally attainable inroad toward dance for teachers who are uncomfortable with this art form. Dance is for everyone. Unexpected joy can happen when teachers set aside their ego and move their bodies. Chris relates an example of the unique experiences teachers have when they first dance with their students—a second-grade teacher wrote him a lengthy message explaining the feelings and emotions she embodied when she danced. She “felt freer than she's ever felt in a long, long time.”
Collaboration Tips for Arts Educators and Classroom Teachers
BTS educators in Provo District reach out to every teacher and ask: “What's the best way that I can communicate with you? How often? And how can I best serve you?” This way, classroom teachers decide what fits their teaching needs best: face-to-face meeting, email communications, or collaboration during Friday PLC time. The point is that arts educators honor the needs of the classroom teacher, and vice-versa.
Research shows the most effective learning happens in co-teaching environments between classroom and BTS teachers. Chris encourages principals—especially those with first-year BTS arts educators—to create this specific type of collaboration: put the classroom teacher together with the arts educator, to co-teach.
Typically, BTS educators initiate conversations with classroom teachers. For those educators not in a BTS school, teachers can reach out to a visual art planning time technician—or other arts educator— and say, “Hey, I'm studying the water cycle in a couple of weeks. Is there anything you can do to help me with that?”
The research is clear: the more arts are integrated into the classroom—regardless of the art form—student retention and engagement are much higher. For example, let’s say a school has a visual arts BTS educator, and a non-visual arts/generalist teacher needs support with integration. That generalist teacher can reach out to that BTS educator and collaborate on what is happening in each others’ classrooms to support learning in both classrooms.
“Mr. Roberts has been working with my class since 2016. Eight years now, wow. He is amazing. He finds books about all different subjects, such as science, literacy, or social skills. He is so creative in designing ways for the students to dance to the books and learn something at the same time, from how plants grow to the rain coming down, rhyme scheme, and being kind, he finds ways to incorporate movement into these lessons.”
How to Plan Dance-Integrated Lesson Plans
1. Find a Children’s Book
Chris spends lots of time reading children’s books because they offer a rich starting place for integrating science, math, social studies, and language arts. Chris describes his process: “As I read a children's book, I may exclaim, “Wow, this says all kinds of verbs in it! Just look at these images. We could dance to these verbs and images! So, when I see a children's book that has a lot of movement potential I buy it and I use it.
2. Consider Content Standards
Consider the grade; what is developmentally appropriate for the grade; consider what they're studying in their science, and in their math, and in their language arts and in their social studies. So I use books like that, that way, picture books mainly.
3. Use Available Lesson Plans
Use the lesson plans on advancingartsleadership.com
Jana Shumway’s (Jordan School District) lesson plans
Dance Integration 36 Dance Lesson Plans for Science and Mathematics by Karen Kaufman and Jordan Dehline. This book contains incredible lesson plans.
4. Innovate: Make It Up
Chris walks in nature—listening, observing, paying close attention to that environment. His mind quiets and ideas come to him.
Enlivening STEM Subjects by Integrating Dance in Schools
Notice that most scientists, mathematicians, neuroscientists, Nobel Prize winners—they all have hobbies in the arts: violin playing, or watercolor painting, or dance. This illustrates why arts integration into STEM subjects is critical: the arts bring those subjects to life. It's hard to imagine doing science without adding a visual, musical, literary, and/or physical movement component. Handing students a math or science book to read doesn’t enliven these content areas: inviting students to express learning through paint, creating a mind map, or getting out of their seats and moving with the idea.
For example, look at a math class on angles: teaching the language acute angle and equal angle and obtuse angle. Show students how to make those angles with their bodies, using their arms: Make a 90-degree angle. Use your arms to show me an obtuse angle. This makes learning more fun and creates muscle memory, so that when students need to recall, it looks like this “Oh, yeah, I did this way. I can close my eyes and remember that time in class.” They can recall the hands-on, arts-integrated experiences—a painting they did, a song they sang, a dance they created. The arts make learning come alive.
Listeners, please note: as he speaks, Chris is moving his arms in different angular sizes and shapes. He is replicating what he has seen students do while taking tests and trying to remember information. This is evidence that movement matters: students are using the proprioception senses of their bodies to remember a space that they held or a shape that taught them the knowledge they need in that moment.
Arts Teaching Contributes to Deep Learning for Students and Vital Living for Teachers
Tina shares a teachers’ experience witnessing changes in her students after implementing more dance into her classroom. The students embody a key outcome of arts-integrated teaching that the arts make learning come alive:
“As she watched her students, she noticed that dance strengthened students’ abilities to listen and follow complex directions. In all areas of instruction, it is crucial for students to be able to follow multi-step instructions. This ability saves time, and builds working memory. In dance students are able to easily self-evaluate their ability to follow these complex instructions. And the feedback is always immediate.”
Chris shares an article by Arthur Brooks titled Art Should be a Habit, Not a Luxury. Just like exercise and sleep, engaging with the arts is critical for a full and happy life. Coupled with routines for self-care, the arts in teaching add vitality to teachers and classrooms: teachers feel more refreshed at the end of the day; teachers feel joyful. “Teachers need to gauge for themselves by asking, ‘What am I doing for myself to keep me vital and running on my 100% for my students?’”
When students witness a teacher feeling that aliveness and vibrancy—a teacher who is feeding themself physically, intellectually, soulfully, and socially—students grow too: students are happier and leave school in a different mindset. Arts-integrated learning helps school shifts away from drudgery toward joyful and artful learning.
For Teachers: 5 Essential Practices for Self-Care & Artful Living
Chris shares five aspects of self-care that can help teachers live wholly and teach artfully:
1. Physical Care: Teaching is a highly demanding job. Being physically present, eating nutritiously, getting rest, and making time for exercise are important ways teachers can rejuvenate and live sustainably. unless they're completely there and putting the right fuel into their body, getting the right exercise, and just taking care of their physical self.
2. Emotional Care: Teachers need a friend, someone important, close, and safe that they can lean on during a down day. Healthy emotional expressions—like turning on some music in the kitchen while they're making dinner and dancing—helps teachers tune into their emotional self.
3. Social Care: There's also the social part that they need to take care of. It is important to keep key people in their lives that support them, that offer them the help they need or the listening ear.
4. Mental Care: There's also the mental part of them. The intellectual part of them that they need to keep abreast to have good science such as good neuroscience and solid educational philosophy.
5. Spiritual Care: Last, I think it's okay to talk about a spiritual self . So like I described before to you already I take long walks in nature. Right now, my wife and I are empty-nesters so we just do it on our own, but I know a lot of classroom teachers have kids, so I encourage them to take walks with their kids. Take a family nature walk, because walking in nature has a more powerful effect than walking in the mall.
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Don’t forget to peruse the bank of lesson plans produced by the BYU ARTS Partnership in dance, drama, music, visual arts, media arts, and more. Search by grade level, art form, or subject area at www.education.byu.edu/arts/lessons.