Dancing Towards Empathy

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March 19, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

“Ch-ch-tsss. Ch-ch-tsss.” On a chilly Wednesday morning, Baja Poindexter sounded out the steps of the rumba to a classroom of fifth-graders at West Athens Elementary School, located in one of Los Angeles’s most violent neighborhoods. She encouraged her class of mostly Latino students to do the same. They tenuously clasped each other’s hands in ballroom dance “frame,” or body position, and swayed to the music at “Miss Baja’s” command. “Side, together, to the lady! Side, together, to the gentleman!” she bellowed.

Toward the end of the hour, the students grew restless and squirmy, the volume of their chatter drowning out Poindexter’s voice. She paused. “You’ve got enough things against you in the outside world. When you come to school, it should be a safe space for you, but you have to make it that way by being respectful to each other.”

Poindexter is a teaching artist for Dancing Classrooms, a nonprofit based in New York City that brings ballroom dancing to schools primarily in underserved communities. Started by the dancer Pierre Dulaine in 1994, the 10-week program was featured in the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom and uses ballroom as a vehicle for teaching elementary- and middle-schoolers social-emotional skills like respect and teamwork and, by extension, empathy. For many underprivileged students, in-class time with programs like Dancing Classrooms is the only time they will have regular exposure to the arts.

“You can’t touch someone in a ballroom-dance frame and that person, for any length of time, be an ‘other,’” said Rodney Lopez, the global program director.

For Poindexter, 26, teaching ballroom is also an empathic exercise. Growing up in Chicago’s South Side, she started working at age 12 to help financially support her family while participating in every free or low-cost dance program she could find. She often used dance as an outlet for the same frustrations she sees in her students at West Athens. She said one of her classes last year descended into a collective crying fit when students threw verbal jabs at each other about relatives dying from gang violence.

“They’re at a disadvantage, and, at some point, they realize they’re at a disadvantage,” she said. “Will dance keep them away from some of these negative things? I do believe that, and that’s why I teach.”

And by the end of 20 classes, which culminate in a regional showcase and competition, the effects in the classroom are palpable: In a 2014-2015 survey of L.A.-area school principals, 66 percent reported an “increased acceptance of others” among their student bodies, while 81 percent of students said they treated others with more respect, following the program. Rob Horowitz, the associate director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Columbia University’s Teachers College, recently conducted a two-year study on the program in New York City whose results have yet to be published. In year one (2013-14) of the study, 95 percent of teachers reported their students improved cooperative and collaborative skills; researchers observed 95 percent of students demonstrating cooperative skills.

“They’re more respectful toward the girls. In the morning when we go into class, they always say, ‘Ladies first.’ [After the 10 weeks], I call them ladies and gentlemen so they remember,” said Michael Peñate, a teacher.

It’s a similar belief in the power of movement that prompted Ricka Glucksman Kelsch to start Dance and Dialogue. The free one-day workshop convenes middle-schoolers from various socioeconomic strata in L.A. County to take master dance classes in different genres; last year’s event featured a class taught by a deaf instructor. They also bond with each other by sharing personal stories in small group sessions modeled on the Native American talking circle. Topics range from coming out to parental substance abuse, and Kelsch credits the willingness of students to share to their common interest in dance. “These kids don’t know each other. They would never tell each other this,” she said.

Kelsch teaches dance part-time at the elite private school Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica (the Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel and actress Kate Hudson are alums) and was partly inspired by her own privileged students, some of whom she said “didn’t know that some students wake up and, less than a mile away from Crossroads, don’t have food to eat, don’t have outfits to put on, wear the same clothes every day.”

In its first year, Dance and Dialogue drew 80 students; now in its third, the workshop is expanding to two days (one for middle-schoolers and one for high-schoolers), and Kelsch anticipates over 300 students will participate. Approximately 80 percent of the students will hail from underprivileged communities.

Studies have shown the cognitive benefits students experience through being exposed to dance and other art forms, which is then linked to improved test scores and grade-point averages, especially for disadvantaged students. However, empathy—the notion that someone can share in and feel the feelings of another—is a squishy concept. It’s also not always easily quantifiable, although a 2010 University of Michigan study indicated declining rates of empathy among college students which some attribute to lack of interaction and play with peers at a younger age, qualities inherent in dance.

“[Dance] is incredibly effective in terms of social-emotional development and in terms of being able to incorporate kids from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different social backgrounds and have them do something common,” said Columbia’s Horowitz. Horowitz is leading a two-year study on Dancing Classrooms commissioned by the organization.

While the long-term effects on students’ capacities to be empathic aren’t yet clear, Horowitz’s findings suggest a lasting impact. “Empathy is hard to observe, but we do see kids helping each other with the dance or seeming to care about each other. We know that we can’t reduce everything from the arts to a number, but we work on it.”

Adapted from theatlantic.

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Have a great day.
Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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36 Comments


  1. The dance teacher works with children from predominantly underprivileged neighborhoods. It’s suggested by some research that children have improved ability to cooperate and give respect. Research has been conducted to show a positive correlation with dance exercise and academic performance. Empathy, however, is harder to quantify, thus any metric used for that seems less steady, but it’s inferred by the professional to increase as defined as the ability to help a person out. Empathy has been decreasing in college students. Empathy is not statistically supported benefit of dance in the strictest sense.

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  2. MIP: dancing for disadvantage students=inc. teamwork+respect+cog benefits=/=empathy

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  3. MIP: Dance in underprivileged community’s children = increases respect + increases teamwork + exercise empathy

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  4. Main Idea: To demonstrate how dance can acts as an effective intervention for low SES students –> Possibility to enhance understanding, acceptance, empathy, and academic outcomes.

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  5. MI: Dance for low SES = Increase exposure to Arts = More emp + Respect, Hard to measure but believed to be effective

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  6. Dance professionals try to teach empathy and other important social skills through dance classes that target the disadvantaged youth.

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  7. Dancing classes for underprivileged = improve social emotional skills (more respective, more acceptance) + cognitive benefits (improved scores) + suggest increase in empathy (not 100% clear)

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  8. Dance and empathy for different groups with an extended focus on underprivileged groups

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  9. benefits of dance = enhance social + emotional skills

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  10. dance–> helping kids with social skills

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  11. Dance is a tool to teach children valuable interpersonal skills, especially those who belong to low SES.

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  12. Dancing Classrooms is an opportunity for under-privileged students to be exposed to the arts where they learn respect, team work and empathy / Poindexter is able to relate to her students as she shares similar life experiences / She feels dancing is a good outlet and avenue for her students / Students show improved cooperative and collaborative skills through the programme / Students have bonded and learn to share their experiences / Dancing helps in social-emotional development and findings suggest its effects will be lasting

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  13. Dance=> increase empathy + collaboration +respect
    Studies to validate this are promising
    tone=neutral

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  14. MIP: Ballroom dance = teach social skills (empathy) + shows increased acceptance
    Tone: Neutral

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  15. Dancing for underpriveleged students = improve social-emotional skills (respect, teamwork, empathy).

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  16. Teaching dance to students from traditionally undeserved neighborhoods appears to also impart benefits in the academic and social/emotional realms. Teachers of classes who have undergone such training report better test scores and GPA, as well as an increase in respect and collaboration. Although hard to quantify, these positive results imply an ability to increase empathy in students through dance, which tends to be an intimate activity.

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  17. MIP: dance=emotional/social skills + dance program = effective

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  18. ballroom dance = teaches empathy, respectfulness, and other social skills to underserved students

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  19. DC= ^ children’s skills + positive influence

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  20. Dance = inc. empathy + cooperation + benefits + outlet negative

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  21. brings dance to low SES, dance = outlet, results seen + cooperation increases + more talkative

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  22. Dance = good for disadvantaged students
    Dance –> empathy

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  23. 1) Dance –>students = more helpful to each other
    2) results from dance programs = positive (ex: respectful to girls)

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  24. MIP: Dance program=underserved studs= +++ social/emotional skills

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  25. Dance = emotional development, empathy difficult to observe; author = neutral

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  26. Ballroom dance class (DC) -> benefits for underserved students in academic and social skills. DC might also help empathy in students

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  27. Dance = increased social and emotional benefits + empathetic exercise even if is not quantifiable

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  28. Dance has been incorporated as an art into both wealthy and underprivileged kid’s lives. It has been common ground despite the differences these kids have. It has shown similar results in both groups, including raising the level of empathy these kids show, even though empathy is difficult to observe and measure.

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  29. dance to underprivileged students= +
    empathy= hard to quantify but dance seems to be related

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  30. dance = empathetic exercise + beneficial; belief powers movement and progression of dance/art

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  31. Dance= unity in underprivileged communities+ many benefits
    empathy=hard to measure+ dance=empathetic exercise

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  32. Dance is used to help people develop personal skills and helped academically. Used for underprivilged students

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  33. MIP: dance has social/emotional benefits + improved empathy? = maybe; tone = neutral

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  34. The passage discusses how ballroom dance (dance in general), is being taught to children in underprivileged communities at school, to improve there acceptance and respect towards others, in other words, their empathy.
    The passage states that empathy is difficult to quantify, but it is evident that the students are improving in their interpersonal skills. The passage gives research results on how dance is changing students for the better, and provides accounts of several dance teachers to support this.

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  35. BP teaching dance=cultivate respect+empathy. The impact++

    Reply

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