UW–Madison’s Parkins leads workshop for MMSD teachers to help bring dance into classrooms

By Kari Dickinson

On a recent Friday afternoon, a couple dozen educators gathered in the gym of Van Hise Elementary School in Madison for a dance workshop with UW–Madison’s Chell Parkins.

On their professional development day, the educators — all who teach K-5 music or K-8 physical education in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) — had chosen to attend this workshop to learn new ways of bringing dance into their classrooms. 

As they sat in a circle on folding chairs, Parkins spoke of using dance to help students more fully connect with music, social-emotional learning, and literacy. 

Chell Parkins and MMSD educators sit in a circle on folding chairs
Parkins speaks with educators about ways of bringing dance into their classrooms. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

“There’s such a high need for arts education right now, especially coming out of this time of COVID social distancing and disembodied learning,” said Parkins, who is the Arnhold Director of Dance Education in the School of Education’s Dance Department. She added that no matter what art form students are learning, “coming back to the body” can help them engage more deeply. 

For workshop participant Rachel Linsmeier Hart, a K-5 music teacher at Henderson Elementary School, working with Parkins affirmed her practice of “investing in play and imagination, and embodying music.” 

“In my classroom, every class moves every day together,” she said. “Students learn experientially by embracing music in a physical sense.”

The workshop has “just been a really good reminder to be intentional with our bodies and movement,” added Liz Ahrens, a K-5 music teacher at Anana Elementary School.

While working with the teachers, Parkins also put theory into practice. She led them through exercises connecting movements with their breath and encouraging them to explore moving their bodies in different ways. She used metaphors as inspiration, for instance offering prompts to imagine they are a jellyfish or a crab — and see how that affects their movement choices.

Chell Parkins leads educators through dance movements
Parkins leads educators through exercises exploring different kinds of movement. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

While Parkins hopes that teachers are able to apply this work in the classroom, she also wanted to give them an opportunity to relax and reconnect with their own bodies. 

“I have so much respect and empathy for teachers right now, because there are just so many challenges being placed on them,” said Parkins. With the workshop, “I hope to give teachers an opportunity to not have to worry about anything but themselves, so they can just have a moment to connect, explore, be curious.”

Parkins moved to Madison from New York City to start work at UW–Madison as the inaugural Arnhold Director of Dance Education last August. Among her priorities are being an advocate for dance education in Wisconsin and regionally, designing and implementing a dance education curriculum in the School of Education, and collaborating with school districts to incorporate dance programming and education. 

In this first year, however, her focus is on building relationships, and the MMSD workshop was one small part of that.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “I just want to sit in communion with this group of teachers and let them get to know me. This first year is about connecting, learning, and developing community. I think those seeds and those foundations are really important.”

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