Steinhardt Global Students Foster Cultural Connections Through Dance Education

NYU Steinhardt News

Steinhardt Global Students Foster Cultural Connections Through Dance Education

In January 2017, students traveled to Kampala, Uganda as part of Steinhardt’s dance education study abroad program to increase their global knowledge of dance and gain teaching experience in an international setting. After seeing how dance fosters cultural connections and increases children’s confidence, dance education graduate students Jessica Ruhlin (MA ’18) and Pamela Vlach (MA ’18) were inspired to return to Uganda to continue bridging ethnic barriers and making a greater impact in children’s lives through dance.

“When I participated in the January study abroad course, it was obvious to me that dance of all kinds can be a vehicle for expression and a powerful tool for connection between cultures,” Vlach explained while describing her desire to return to Africa. “Language barriers don’t matter if people can move together.”

Preparation for the trip included fundraising, writing grant proposals, and creating an enriching and inclusive curriculum.

“Pam and I talked a lot about what we thought was important for us to bring as individual artists and teachers, and what would make for the best experience for students,” Ruhlin said. “I did a lot of reflecting on what I had learned the previous year in graduate school, what I've spent a lifetime learning in my own classical ballet training, and what I learned about Ugandan culture in January.”

To fundraise for the three-and-a-half-week visit this summer, Vlach and Ruhlin put a call out on social media and Fractured Atlas, a platform that provides artists with monetary and business support for their projects. The duo also collected over 50 pairs of dance shoes by reaching out to dance shoe companies Capezio and Miller & Ben.     

In July, they returned to Uganda and began teaching dance in various school and studio settings. Through connections made by faculty members Deborah Damast and Jill Pribyl, Vlach and Ruhlin taught ballet, jazz, step and stomp, and more at the Queen’s Kampala Dance Studio. In addition, Ruhlin taught ballet to trained dancers at the Tender Talents Magnet School, an institution that provides academic and professional-level arts trainings to students from low-income communities. Vlach also taught tap at the Sosolya Undugu Dance Academy Center for Children and Youth, which helps bridge cultural gaps, and provides children with a sense of belonging and hope. At the end of the visit, students from the Sosolya Center performed a show combining Ugandan cultural dance and tap at East Africa University.

“The most rewarding part of this trip for me was watching the personal progression in each child,” Vlach stated. “I saw a shy little girl find a place in the front row after hiding in the back for a week, and children who were quiet in the beginning were contributing ideas at the end. I observed older children gain confidence and voluntarily help the younger ones, or jump in to assist classes without being asked. Those are the moments I remember; the signs that the kids were developing leadership skills through dance and movement.”

Although they are back in New York City, Vlach and Ruhlin are committed to continue using dance to bridge cultural barriers. Vlach is sending weekly tap instructional videos to the children at the Sosolya Center, and Ruhlin is working with faculty to create a culturally integrative ballet curriculum.

“Jill Pribyl and I are working on funding for and writing of a ballet curriculum with a Ugandan focus, hopefully to encourage ways of looking at teaching a codified dance form through a specific cultural lens,” Ruhlin said. “I hope that it will be a useful tool not just for others teaching ballet in Uganda, but for what special considerations need to be taken when teaching dance in various cultural settings so that their values and customs become part of the pedagogy.”