Dance breaks through language barriers

Capoeira, bachata, swing and hip hop dance moves help Brooklyn High School students speak without saying a word

The pop rhythms of Shakira singing “Waka Waka” hit the dance floor as close to two dozen teenagers from Bangladesh, Senegal, Haiti and the Dominican Republic rehearsed their routines for the following week’s showcase performance.

“Class, I want to see ceilings covered by colors. Up, up, down, down, paint the sky!” declared dance teacher Megan Minturn, as she moved in sync alongside her students. Their original choreography was inspired by capoeira from Brazil, a martial arts dance created by slaves planning a secret uprising, and by diaspora dances from Liberia, Guinea and the Dominican Republic.

Students performed a dance for “One Billion Rising” campaign at the school calling for the end of violence against women.

Dance is mandatory at Brooklyn International High School on Flatbush Avenue, a public school for new immigrants. The unique curriculum allows the 350 high schoolers who speak more than 35 languages to break through cultural barriers and communicate with each other.

Most of the students are not fluent in English, since the school restricts enrollment to ninth through twelfth graders who have been in the U.S. for only four years or less. By learning capoeira from Brazil, bachata from the Dominican Republic, and swing and hip hop from America, students explore the culture and social meanings behind the dances.

Dance is embraced as their universal language.

“Dance is like a poem, each movement is a word. I could send a powerful message through dance,” said Jean Marie Jean Kevin who believed dance can help him break language barriers.

Jean Marie Jean Kevin, a senior from Haiti, said improvising collaborate dance helps him to communicate without speaking a word. Kevin, who hopes to major in photography and dance in college, is currently preparing for a salsa performance scheduled for the end of March.

Ninth and tenth graders are required to take dance four days a week in addition to two days of physical education. They also have the option to attend an after-school club dance company on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Both sessions are taught by Minturn, who created the mandatory dance curriculum after she arrived at Brooklyn International High School seven years ago.

As a teaching artist, Minturn realized how powerful it could be to have the students express themselves through the art and joy of dance. But at first, it was not an easy fit in a school trying to blend more than 30 international backgrounds. Some students come from cultures where dancing between boys and girls is taboo. Others questioned the value of dancing.

Minturn said she had a Latino student who refused to dance for two to three months, because he was brand new to the U.S. and was too nervous to practice in class.

The teacher offered him alternative research projects. After watching his peers having so much fun in class, he decided to join. That student, Minturn said, eventually performed a contemporary dance about immigration rights at Lincoln Center.

Another Yemeni student was reluctant to dance because her family was concerned about mixing boys and girls. After the parent coordinator invited the parents to observe the class, she said the student ultimately changed her mind.

Minturn directed a salsa performance scheduled in the end of March.

Minturn’s goal is to teach students enough moves for them to create their own dance. “I give them some technical background so that they can feel the rhythms and the music within their own bodies,” said Minturn. “I think everyone can be an artist, so when I give them the time and space to create, they are encouraged by that.”

In addition, students study the socio-historical background and culture behind each dance they learn.

Students also learn choreographic vocabulary, history and cultural background of each dance.

“You can learn more from the country by the way they dance,” said Bensh-Nahalda Jean, another senior from Haiti. “But you can also tell stories by dancing too.” Minturn said students feel empowered when they see dances from their own countries and are able to teach their classmates about their origins.

An important side benefit of teaching dance as a universal language is the boost it gives to English language learning. A 2013 report on the Arts Connection NYC found that dance helped English Language Learners and new immigrant students transcend language barriers.

According the study, all teachers reported that students incorporated vocabulary from arts workshops in other school subjects and 86 percent reported the use of arts vocabulary in writing, with increased risk-taking in their use of language.

At Brooklyn International High School, students participating in the dance classes also learn specific dance vocabulary and about the lives of famous choreographers.

At least one student discovered a career in dance he had no idea existed before Brooklyn International High School. Juanelvis Paulino, who joined the school as an education coordinator last year, participated in Minturn’s after-school dance club before he graduated in 2013.

Paulino said dance is not considered a career in his home country, the Dominican Republic. He pursued dance in college, landed an internship and was accepted at Fashion Institute of Technology, minoring in dance. Paulino returns from time to time to Minturn’s class to help teach hip hop.

“Even if a student doesn’t become a professional dancer, they learn that we are a global community that can respect one another,” said Minturn.

On a sunny Friday afternoon in March, three days before their official performance, a group of BIHS students traveled a few blocks to Brooklyn Friends, an independent private K-12 school, to watch a dance performance on the stage they would occupy in a week’s time.

Brooklyn International High School has no auditorium of its own. The space that greeted them at Brooklyn Friends was grand and professionally equipped with lighting and acoustics systems.

About 65 Brooklyn Friends students performed 30 different dances that afternoon, assisted by ten teaching artists, professional choreographers and stage designers who helped with costumes costumes, rehearsal supervision and lighting designs.

Minturn was grateful to borrow the auditorium for her 90 dancers. “ I wish we had more money to bring in teaching artists,” she said.