By MARK ROSARIO ’20
With the push of a button, the room swelled with music: lively jazz rhythms and a pulsing bassline formed the heartbeat of the dancers’ motions. Bright, Saturday morning sunshine poured like a spotlight onto the makeshift stage— the white tiles of Edison High School’s cafeteria. Today’s stars? Middle schoolers from across the Edison school district.
This is the Edison High School Dance Ensemble’s annual Dance Day, which took place on February 8, 2020. The event, now in its second year, is designed to raise funds for the ensemble’s shows and field trips while publicizing Edison’s fledgling high school dance program to prospective students. The program began in the 2017-2018 school year with the construction of special dance rooms in Edison and J.P. Stevens High Schools. The district’s middle schools do not have dance classes, so rising freshmen can use Dance Day to sample the program while they weigh their elective options.
“I feel free, open, confident when I’m dancing,” said Catalina Castiblanco ‘22, who taught the jazz dance session along with Mrs. Vicki Jenkins, the dance teacher at Edison High. The two brought those free and open vibes to life on Dance Day, mixing enthusiasm and encouragement with detailed tips in technique. As students leapt across the cafeteria in sync with each other, Mrs. Jenkins taught them the French words that classical choreographers used as they pioneered their art. The students learned the difference between the chassé, a galloping move where one foot chases the other in midair, and the chaînés, a chain of half-turns that happen with every footstep. The vocabulary reflects the dance program’s goal of educating children in dance’s history as well as technique.
Some of the students had taken dance classes before, and some were new to the art, but all were celebrated at the end of a tough exercise with bowing, clapping, and excitement. “You ended strong,” Mrs. Jenkins told the students, “and the audience always remembers the beginning and the end.”
The contrast between beginnings and endings turned out to be a major theme of Dance Day, as the students would gather in the dance room at the end of their jazz, hip-hop, and contemporary lessons to show their parents what they learned. Before then, however, EHS students shared how their experiences with the dance program shaped the beginnings and endings of their high school lives.
“People have sports and clubs—dance is my space. When I dance, I’m expressing emotion,” said Gabriella Banyacski ‘20, one of the Dance Day student teachers. Gabriella’s favorite dance genre is contemporary, because it can be slower and story-like. On bad days, dance can wash away unpleasant emotions and replace them with “friendship and good vibes.”
Alisha Edwards ‘22 says that dancing carries “vulnerability, sincerity, and emotion.” She plans to join a dance team in college, to develop the skills she learned in high school.
Mrs. Jenkins, who wrote her master’s thesis on “the missing art” of dance in New Jersey public schools, has a personal connection to her work. Though her own high school did not have a dance ensemble, she developed a passion for dance in kindergarten, eventually training with Steps on Broadway, a dance company in New York. She feels that her work in Edison, and the growth of dance in public schools across the country, help make dance more accessible for young children who have a passion for dancing but may not be able to afford tuition at independent dance schools. As music videos, Broadway shows, and the Internet bring dancing to the spotlight, children’s interest will only grow. The only question that remains is whether public school districts can meet this growing demand. Edison’s dance program is a sign that they can.
After all, as Mrs. Jenkins often reminds her dancers, “There’s no such thing as can’t.”