By Todd Cohen
DURHAM, N.C. — Fourth grade can be challenging for young people, a confusing time between early-childhood and adolescence when they begin to encounter new experiences they are not always prepared to handle.
For students in families facing economic distress, fourth grade can be even more difficult.
Since 2005, Durham-based nonprofit North Carolina Arts in Action has used dance to help fourth-graders in need navigate the challenges and changes they are facing and to equip them to succeed in school and life.
Inspired by a teaching methodology developed by Jacques d’Amboise, founder of the National Dance Institute and a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, N.C. Arts in Action aims to “bring out the best in every child, regardless of background or experience in dance, and regardless of talent and abilities, including special needs,” says Marlon Torres, its executive director.
Operating with an annual budget of about $356,000, the nonprofit this year serves over 1,000 students in 10 schools, including seven in Wake County and one each in Chatham, Durham and Orange counties.
That’s 200 more students than it served last year and 600 more than five years ago, when it served students in four schools in two counties.
That growth reflects a five-year effort to strengthen its staff and board, improve its fundraising, and better integrate dance into the classroom curriculum for more fourth-grade students in more low-income public schools.
Funded with a total of $60,000 in grants over five years from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation Durham to build its organizational “capacity,” N.C. Arts in Action has expanded and trained its board of directors to play a more active role in planning and fundraising.
It has hired an artistic director and part-time office assistant, added more teaching artists and teaching assistants, and provided training on its teaching methodology to them and to classroom teachers in the schools it serves.
It has more than doubled its annual support from foundations to $220,000, and from individuals to $50,000.
And it has developed a new partnership with the Wake County Public School System, which now provides 40 percent of the the funding N.C. Arts in Action needs to serve seven Wake schools.
Once a week for 18 to 25 weeks in each of the 10 participating schools, the entire fourth grade devotes 50 minutes to 60 minutes to dance instruction that also is designed to reinforce lessons the students are learning in academic subjects, such as storytelling, social studies and science.
Teaching the classes are a lead teacher and choreographer, an assistant teacher, and a musician, with live music included in every class.
The classes culminate in two large-scale productions for the entire school and the community.
On a Wednesday in late March, Torres led 60 fourth-graders through a rehearsal for a performance, including a piece called “Electromagnetism,” that underscores this year’s academic theme of technology.
Fourth-graders, he says, are at an age when they are “ready physically for the rigorous demand of the program, which uses dance as a tool for teaching important life skills, and when students begin to take ownership of their own learning.”