POSTCARDS: A DANCER, Marie-Christine Giordano, GOES TO SCHOOL
To Lead Young Students from Sunset Park, Brooklyn in After-School Movement Classes
*Michael Goodman is a news editor at IBTimes. He is also freelance journalist who writes about the performing arts, including dance, theater, film and the visual arts.
Outside P.S. 24, a K-5 elementary school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a series of murals painted on concrete blocks alternate with bar fencing. One of the murals depicts a Latin American farmer who towers over the surrounding mountains and his fields, and as he leans forward across rows of crops, he bears in his hands the fruits of his labor. To the sides in the forefront are tall stalks of growing corn, the topmost ears bursting their husks to reveal kernels turned golden in the warmth of the radiating sun.
Inside, in the late afternoon, there is cultivation of another sort—of young bodies and minds. Children form two lines on one side of an auditorium stage, supervised by adult counselors. At the other end, a blonde woman dressed in lavender warm-ups calls out instructions. Two by two, the children advance across the stage to the voice of Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa, intently executing pirouettes as they go. Each alternately raises and lowers an arm at high and low angles on every rotation, slicing through the air like a sharp blade.
The instructor, Marie-Christine Giordano, greets each pair with praise as they conclude their procession. She is a Swiss dancer and the director and choreographer of an eponymous modern dance company, Marie-Christine Giordano Dance. A veteran of the New York dance scene, she founded MCGD at the onset of the new millennium. The troupe is based only blocks away from P.S. 24 in Greenwood Heights.
In 2006, Giordano decided her company would offer scholarships to neighborhood children in her studio. “I had been a Brooklyn resident for a number of years by then,” she says, and I wanted to connect with others who live here in a meaningful way.” But she came to the conclusion that, from the standpoint of logistics, it would make more sense to teach in local schools.She approached several of them, inquiring whether they had interest in movement classes conducted by a professional dancer.
P.S. 24 responded favorably to Giordano’s overtures. Already in place was the PAZ (Peace from A-Z) After-School Program, which dates to 1999, one of three such programs in New York City schools operated by the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. PAZ is funded by The After-School Program, or TASC, and the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development. In a school of 700, which is 91 percent Hispanic and offers dual-language instruction in Spanish and English, PAZ serves some 180 students in the hours after dismissal, from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The movement classes proposed by Giordano dovetailed nicely with the PAZ mission, which, according to the program’s website, “seeks to strengthen the social and emotional competencies of students through artistic, athletic and intellectual projects and activities.”
Giordano teaches two classes to kindergarten and first-grade children on Thursdays and Fridays throughout the school year. Class participants generally number about 20. She favors working with young children, which at P.S. 24 means 5- and 6-year-olds. “At that age, they’re more spontaneous and eager to learn,” Giordano says.
Shepherded by two counselors, children troop into the auditorium on a cold day wearing winter coats and bearing heavy backpacks that seem enormous in contrast to their diminutive stature. Aided by the counselors, they remove their things and their shoes and are then ushered up stairs to the stage, where Giordano awaits them.
“Let’s form a circle,” she says, and the children quickly take their places. Today she selects a little girl dressed in an orange T-shirt and gray sweatpants to stand at its center. Giordano uses her to point out parts of the body they will use in the warm-up and class that ensue.
“What’s this?” Giordano asks, running a finger down the girl’s back. Tiny hands shoot up, and she coaxes the correct answer, the spine, from one of them after a few off-the-mark answers. She moves on to the vertebrae and the discs that lie between them and then to a discussion of the muscles necessary for movement.
The children are largely attentive. At an age where they cannot be expected to focus for an extended time, it is surprising to see how quiet and absorbed they are. “Dance involves discipline,” Giordano says, “and I try to teach them to pay close attention, which for me is key to the learning process.” The active role played by counselors contributes to the class’s exceptional focus. In a class of 20, Giordano cannot give individual attention to all her charges. “When the counselors work closely with me and the kids,” she says, “the class is just so much better.”
The students appear to have the most fun when asked to improvise and follow their feelings. Some, more reserved or self-conscious than others, reach the head of the line and are clearly stumped, but they find a solution by resorting to moves they have executed earlier in the class. Others, perhaps more enterprising, show little sign of inhibition and venture new movements of their own.
Last in line is an older boy, a second grader. In the course of the class, he has at times seemed challenged and ill at ease. Now, as he begins to cross the stage, he seems entirely in sync with the music and naturally connected to the beat. He moves gracefully and fluidly, and to this spectator it seems his very spirit is emerging.
The class soon comes to an end. Giordano prompts the children to form a line at the front of the stage and bow. Not merely a professional touch, but an opportunity for them to acknowledge and honor their own effort and a sign of respect for their instructor and the class they have completed. I am an audience of one, but I applaud. They deserve it, for they have performed ably for the better of part of an hour and shown impressive powers of concentration.
The children descend the stairs, and with the aid of their counselors, they tie their shoes, and shoulder their backpacks, restoring quiet to the auditorium as they exit. I get up from my front-row seat to ask Giordano about the boy whose unexpected performance was so compelling. “He just blossoms when given free rein,” she says, smiling. “It’s been extraordinary to watch him make that transformation.”
For many teachers, it is enough to impart information that their students can master and retain. For Giordano the goal is not just to mentor her charges, but to provide a structured and supportive environment in which a child can thrive and the self emerge.
In “Among School Children,” the poet W.B. Yeats wrote, ”Labour is blossoming or dancing where / The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.” In the late afternoon, as Giordano turns off the stage lights, it is clear to me I have watched young souls pleasured and take flight.
For more information on Marie-Christine Giordano and MCGD, please visit www.mcgdance.org;
for more on the PAZ After-School Program, go to www.morningsidecenter.org/paz-after-school-programs; and for more on the SHS Theater Program, contact Elena Scripps at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 832-5858.