Douglas County High School hosts Australian indigenous dancers
CASTLE ROCK-- Students enrolled in Douglas County High School’s (DCHS) International Baccalaureate (IB) dance program are getting an incredible opportunity this week-- one that no other students in the U.S. are receiving.
As part of a U.S. tour, three dancers from the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) are leading a week-long residency at DCHS, training Douglas County dance students in Australian indigenous dance technique, choreography and culture, as well as working with the students to create their own dances to be performed this Friday.
The NAISDA tour is visiting only a handful of locations, including the University of Virginia, Philadelphia and New York. Additionally, the dancers were in Denver last week for the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) conference, where they performed and led a workshop.
DCHS is the only high school in the country that the NAISDA dancers are teaching and the opportunity was made possible following a fortuitous chain of events. In August, long before learning of the visit, IB dance program director, Judi Hofmeister, asked her students to create original dance pieces and learning goals under the theme of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance culture and techniques.
“I didn’t actually know until October that the NASIDA dancers were coming to town,” Hofmeister said. “Carole Johnson is the Founder of NAISDA, and also happens to be the founder of the Bangarra Dance Theatre, which is the dance company I assigned to the kids for them to gain inspiration for their dance pieces. So this has all been very synchronistic and the planets totally aligned.”
An introduction to Carole Johnson, made by Malik Robinson, Executive Director of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company, made it all possible.
“This has been great,” Johnson said. “The kids are really picking things up quickly. It’s great watching how much they are enjoying the experience.”
Hofmeister is no stranger to bringing unique, innovative opportunities to DCHS. In fact, it was her efforts in 2000 that led DCHS to have one of the first IB dance programs in the world.
“We were one of the first schools in the world to pilot IB dance, and we’re still the only school in Colorado today that has IB dance,” she explained.
As a pioneer, Hofmeister played an instrumental role in establishing IB’s dance curriculum, writing IB’s dance guide and assessment rubrics. In fact, she traveled back and forth between Cardiff, Wales and Colorado on breaks to work with professors, high school teachers and curriculum specialists from all over the world as they established the program. There are now approximately 100 IB dance programs worldwide.
“When I came to this school, I wanted to build a program that I would have loved to have when I was in high school,” Hofmeister said. “There is a bunch of us that I know would have loved to do something just like this.”
For senior Samantha Lewis, the opportunities to work with the NAISDA dancers and enroll in DCHS’s IB dance program would not have been possible if it weren’t for Douglas County School District’s focus on school choice. It is one of four priorities in DCSD’s Strategic Plan.
“I came to Douglas County specifically for the IB program because I just knew how beneficial it would be,” Lewis said. “So I chose to come here, and I kind of feel like I got lucky with IB dance. It was a lottery and I got in, which is so cool!”
While awaiting acceptance at Colorado State University, Lewis’ experience at DCHS is impacting the direction she is pursuing upon graduation.
“Honestly, if not for IB dance I don’t know if I would be pursuing dance in college,” she said. “I was dancing and doing musical theatre, but I never studied dance before coming here. I never had to write a paper about dance, or write choreography down for dance and analyze it and retrograde it and study other choreographers and write about them. So if not for IB dance in general I don’t know that it would have piqued my interest enough to go into it in college.”
Having the opportunity to work with the NAISDA dancers is giving students, like Lewis, a real-life cultural learning opportunity that most students would only gain second hand, not from a primary source.
“You can only get so much from watching video of other dancers,” Lewis said. “Here we’re getting the chance to work with them personally and getting to know them and their different styles. You can only get so much from reading a book or watching documentaries. They are personally sharing their personal stories with us.”
Taree Sansbury, one of the three NAISDA dancers, agreed and said this is part of the goals of this residency.
“What we’re doing with this particular class is giving a behind the scenes look at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance, infused with contemporary dance. What students typically are working with is stuff on paper, on the internet, videos and information that someone sent to them. It’s a whole other thing to have people come in person, so then they can investigate, ask questions, share, and do their own personal research.”
While this week is a unique learning opportunity for the Douglas County students, it is also a two-way cultural exchange and new experience for the NAISDA dancers.
“This is actually unique for us to be inside a high school,” said NAISDA dancer, Thomas Kelly. “To spend a whole week with the students, and create stuff with them that they actually will perform is the only residency of its kind that we’re doing in the States.”
“They are quick learners, I was impressed! I’m so proud of them,” said NAISDA dancer, Hans Ahwang, who hails from the Torres Strait Islands, another indigenous culture of Australia. “Yesterday I was feeling a bit emotional, I had goosebumps. As they were learning and pronouncing the language it made me a little homesick.”
NAISDA is hoping the success of the Douglas County residency will lead to a much larger in-school residency program in the U.S. in the future.
“This program is sort of a test run of a future larger program that might happen on a regular basis,” Sansbury said. “NAISDA Dance is thinking of coming over for a few events that happen each year in the U.S. over a 6-month timespan, helping graduates of the NAISDA program jump into the professional world of performing and teaching. So this is almost a test-pilot program and hopefully it will continue if we generate enough interest from the U.S. and Australia.”
The residency will culminate this Friday, January 29 in a joint performance by the IB and NAISDA dancers. Preceding the performance, students from Southridge Elementary and Mesa Middle School will have the opportunity to work with the NAISDA and IB dancers on cultural lessons and exercises. Additionally, a talkback will be held with students enrolled in DCHS’s IB Theory of Knowledge class.