BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Emily Lowman is the Santa Fe Outreach Artistic Director of the National Dance Institute – New Mexico, an organization that goes into the public schools and teaches dance classes to kids. Emily shared with me the highlights, challenges and impact she has experienced working with NDI-NM.
How did NDI get started?
Jacques d’Amboise was a member of the New York City Ballet, and he started working with kids in the schools around New York City in 1976. This was the start of the National Dance Institute (NDI), and then he started training teachers to work in his program. He and one of his teachers, Catherine Oppenheimer, came out to New Mexico to do an artist in residency in Silver City. When Catherine finished her dancing career in 1994, she decided to move out to New Mexico to start an NDI program. New York is still the original NDI home base, but NDI New Mexico is an affiliate. There are several other NDI-based organizations across the United States.
I direct the Santa Fe outreach program, which goes into the public schools and teaches dance to third, fourth and fifth grade students. We also have after-school programs in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
I teach in the public schools, I teach our advanced training (SWAT) teams, and I administratively run the outreach program.
How did you personally get involved in NDI?
After I graduated from the University of New Mexico, my at-the-time fiancé was getting his teaching degree. We moved to Santa Fe because he was doing an internship program. I started to dance with a company in town, and one of the members of the company was the residency director for NDI-NM. It was my first year out of college, I started to work with NDI, and I’ve been here ever since. I love it so much.
What are some personal highlights working with NDI?
I didn’t get a chance to dance a lot as a child. My father was a drama professor, so I did a lot of acting, I didn’t start dance until I was in college. I don’t know why I decided I was just going to go for it and get a dance degree, but I did. In my dancing career, I’ve wanted to find ways to reach kids who don’t have the opportunity to go to a studio and train. NDI appealed to me. The first time I saw a show was out at the Jemez Pueblo. It was in a gym, and probably 100 kids from different backgrounds (including the neighborhood kids from the Jemez Springs Pueblo and the nearby Catholic community) came together. The gym was completely packed with parents, grandparents, little brothers and sisters, and it was a beautiful experience to see the kids dancing while their families cheered them on. I’ll never forget that feeling of community and pride I saw in those kids and family members. That’s what really pulled me into NDI.
What are some of the challenges you face working within NDI?
I teach fourth grade kids in the public schools how to dance and work together as a team. The classes I teach are mandatory, so there are a lot of kids, especially boys, who go into the class with the mindset of “I’m not going to do that.” Winning them over is the most challenging and rewarding thing, all in one. Keeping myself positive, keeping my energy up, and inspiring them to want to move, work together and cheer for each other is the hardest thing I do.
We were doing a modern step just this past week, and the boys had a difficult time getting it. I said, “You know in basketball when you do a hook shot? It’s the same thing, but you’re falling over with your body.” I’m constantly trying to come up with a vocabulary they can understand in their bodies, and also break those stereotypes. Dance isn’t just ballet; it’s being physically active and expressive with your body. Breaking through those barriers is really interesting, especially with the boys.
What does success look like? When do you personally feel successful?
The mission statement of our organization is we use dance to teach children hard work, excellence, discipline, never giving up, and believing in themselves. For me, I see success when the kids hit that final pose, and for the first time they hear the applause. I keep talking to them about that moment throughout the year, and I make them hold that final pose. I tell them they will thank me. I check in with them after the first show when they’ve had the experience of people standing up and clapping for them. Are the kids smiling and proud of themselves when they get to that final event? That’s my meter.
What different do you perceive NDI makes in kids’ lives?
One of the things I see a lot of in my teaching is the kids come to respect each other through being part of a team. Some of the steps we teach are not easy, and it’s great to watch the team come together and cheer for a kid who finally gets a step or give each other compliments. That’s really important, seeing them learn to respect one another a little more. There’s also the concept of effort, learning what it means to work hard and do your best – that concept of excellence. The discipline of dance teaches a kid to ask: how do you personally make yourself better? How do you push yourself to excel?
What forms of dance do you teach the kids?
In the in-school program, we do jazz, but our after-school programs offer jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop, theater and voice. The in-school program, which we call free-style jazz dance, allows for tennis shoes. Crispy fingers and making your body really big and expansive are important components.
Do you have kids who come through NDI who get hooked on dance but don’t have the resources to pursue it seriously?
My program is the introduction to all the programming we have at NDI. Kids in my classes who really love it and put in effort are invited to audition for an advanced training team, which we call SWAT – Super Wonderful Advanced Team. The kids on those teams can continue to audition to study beyond the in-school program. The next step from there is Celebration Team for middle school students, and from there we started a pre-professional company called Company Excel. Company Excel particularly evolved after we opened our building and could continue classes after school. We now have kids who have gone on to summer intensive programs, and several graduates who have danced with professional companies. One dances with the Stephen Petronio Company, two work in Broadway companies, and another works in a ballet company in Canada.
To learn more about NDI-NM, visit www.ndi-nm.org.