Spotlight: Arts in Action

Harry Lynch, The News & Observer

Harry Lynch, The News & Observer

by Anna Long

There’s a program in Wake County elementary schools that is making kids want to go to school. It’s not recess. But it feels that way.

North Carolina Arts in Action is using dance lessons to teach students life skills one session at a time. Founded in 2005, the program is one of 12 independent affiliates of the National Dance Institute. The group works to help elementary school children reach their full potential using performing arts as a catalyst to build focus, discipline, self-esteem, teamwork, and leadership.

“Students respond to high expectations when they know what to do to meet them,” says N.C. AIA board member Susan Garrity. “When students are confident, they behave better. When students are engaged, teachers can do more teaching.”

While some students develop a love for dance, that’s not necessarily the goal, Garrity says. More than anything, the program aims to show kids that they can achieve any goal with hard work and dedication.

“Dance is a critical part of the program, but the focus is dance as a means for teaching these life skills,” she says. “It’s about making them realize, ‘Hey, I can do something I didn’t know I could do.’ ”

In its first year in Wake County, the program is already making a difference. Using an award-winning teaching curriculum developed by celebrated dancer, choreographer and National Dance Institute founder Jacques d’Amboise, musicians and teachers work to tie in elements of the state’s curriculum throughout each high-energy class.

While you might expect students to be embarrassed or hesitant to dance, that doesn’t appear to be the case. In a recent class at Knightdale Elementary School, a group of fourth graders stomped their way into the school gym, humming with excitement. Despite recent class cancellations from snow, they jumped right into a dance routine they’d learned weeks earlier. Artistic Director Alton Tisino shouted encouragement: “If you make a mistake, do you just give up?” he asked the class. “No!” students yelled back. “No,” he agreed. “You keep going.”

But “keep going” doesn’t mean Tisino brushes past mistakes. He expects no less than perfect. The kids respond with gusto. “We make a pact at the beginning of the class. There are three rules,” he says, counting them on his fingers. “Always give 100 percent; Be respectful; Never give up. We promise them that if they follow these three rules, they will be successful.”

He means it. Tisino was once a student in an affiliate program in his home state of Texas. At the age of 9, he had no dance or performance experience. He says he initially tried to hide in the back of the room, as many boys do during the first class session, but he quickly excelled in the program.

His commitment and energy made an impression on Institute founder d’Amboise. Six years later, d’Amboise took Tisino under his wing and selected him for a scholarship to the organization’s teacher training program. Tisino went on to help run the program.

It’s easy to see why d’Amboise was impressed. Students described as ordinarily shy in the classroom have come out of their shells – each dancing unabashedly – as they follow his lead.

“There’s an innate love of movement that every child has,” says N.C. AIA executive director Marlon Torres. “We don’t really find a lot of resistance when it comes to participation – everyone feels safe.”

The ultimate goal is to promote confidence. According to a 2011 survey, 79 percent of students from low-income households said the program improved their self-confidence and self-worth.

“It takes a balancing act to do what (Tisino) does,” Torres says. “Our greatest resource in this program is our teachers. There are amazing dancers out there that can dance beautifully, but it takes a special kind of person to work with children.”

Knightdale Elementary School’s final performance is May 7 at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at Knightdale
Elementary School. The performance is free. To learn more about N.C. Arts in Action, visit