Giving Children Room to Dance

An Interview with Diane Duggan


Diane Duggan is a New York City-based psychologist, dance/movement therapist, and dance educator who has worked with children and youth with disabilities since 1973. She ran a dance program for adolescents with emotional and learning disorders in the South Bronx for 21 years, and has taught in the NYU Dance Education MA program since 1994. She also has taught in the 92nd Street Y Dance Education Laboratory (DEL) and Dance Therapy programs since 2006. Here, she shares highlights from her long career as well as her thoughts on how dance therapy and dance education support each other, how dance for students with disabilities has changed over the decades, and what she sees a dance education looking like in the future.


Can you share how you became a dance therapist and educator, as well as some highlights from your career?

When I was a little girl I was always dancing, but I had no idea that people could take dance lessons. In Inwood, my neighborhood in northern Manhattan, I didn’t know anyone taking dance lessons. My parents encouraged my interest and bought me a little book about ballet, so I was always doing port de bras and making the body shapes I saw in the book. By the time I took ballet at age 12, it was already in my soul and body from the book.

In college, I started as a psych major, but they were running rats and I wasn’t into that, so I switched to literature because I felt that related more to what people were about. After a year in the Experimental College, I did two years’ worth of a French major. It was satisfying but didn’t prepare me for a job. My first job was microfilming documents for the NYC Housing Authority. I knew I needed a better job, so I went to NY State Unemployment. The woman in charge told me I didn’t belong there. But before I left, she asked me, “What do you love to do?” She did not ask me what I wanted to be. She asked me what I loved to do. I was very naïve, so I told her I love to dance and to help people. And she simply said, “Dance therapy.” I didn’t know what that was, but she told me there was a dance therapist at Bellevue.  Those were the days of the phone book, before the internet, and I found Lee Strauss’s number at the hospital. She told me about the dance therapy master’s program at Hunter College. I applied and got in the first year of the program. It changed my life. Elissa White and Claire Schmais were a phenomenal team and great teachers. I also met and learned from Irmgard Bartenieff. It’s serendipity that the woman at the NY State Unemployment knew of dance therapy, which was not something I had heard of. I’m so grateful that she took the time to ask me such an important question.

After graduation my peers got jobs at psychiatric institutions, but my first job was at Queens State School, which was for children and youth with severe multiple disabilities, both intellectual and physical. I remember standing there in 1973 with my record player as the children came in on carts, unable to lift their heads. Inside, I was afraid and didn’t know what I was going to do. I allied myself with the physical therapists and got a lot of staff development training in Neurodevelopmental Therapy.

What seemed at the time like a crisis turned out to be a major opportunity. I learned a tremendous amount about the nervous system, motor development and therapy. The children I was working with had very little voluntary movement, so I learned from the physical therapists how to hold them so they were stabilized and could move voluntarily as much as possible, as well as how to elicit balance reactions to further brain and motor development.

That learning has been very helpful in my work with children and young people with disabilities over the years. However, the main thing I learned there is that people can grow no matter how serious and pervasive their disabilities are. We had one youngster who was 15 years old and weighed 19 lbs. He couldn’t move or even lift his head, nor could he see or hear. Johnny didn’t show any voluntary movement, but a colleague connected with him by making a little pfwtt sound near his ear. Johnny smiled every time she did it. We were all amazed and deeply gratified by his reaction. Through her persistence and caring, we were able to connect with him.

In my dance therapy groups, I started off with recorded music but quickly switched to singing, which related more to the here and now. I don’t have a good voice, but I felt free with the children. I made up songs all the time, and that really engaged them, along with the movement. It turned into a wonderful program focused on gross motor development, socialization, and language development, especially on the receptive level.

I went to work at the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) and began working with teenagers who were classified as neurologically impaired/emotionally handicapped. I immediately saw that the youngsters who were classified as emotionally disturbed weren’t crazy. I saw how capable they were. They couldn’t read despite being in high school, but I saw a lot of strength in them. Not every teacher felt that way. I actually heard a staff member call one young man a vegetable because he was very quiet. I kept away from those kinds of teachers. I figured out that the best way to be effective was to close my door and do my own thing.

I tried circle dancing first, and the young people asked me, “Why are we doing this?” I told them something about being together and getting in touch with our feelings, but I knew that wouldn’t be satisfactory for long and that I had better come up with something else. My traditional dance therapy Chacian circle did not work well with those youngsters so I had to adapt it. I called them into a circle, and they kept making lines. I’m a quick study, so after a few days I told them to line up. Then they were happy, even though I was uncomfortable. They didn’t want to be equal with me; they wanted me to be their teacher in the traditional classroom arrangement they were familiar with.

I tried doing choreography with them, but they said it was either too hard or too easy. It wasn’t working. In between the steps I was making up, I started going back and forth, four beats this way, four beats that way. This was a pattern I learned from my Haitian dance teacher, Jean-Léon Destiné. He didn’t teach it explicitly. He just did it between combinations and I implicitly picked it up from him. The children asked me, “Miss, what’s that?” I called it the 4’s, and it became a major vehicle for us to dance together. The most important point here is that I didn’t realize the importance of that pattern, but because I was observing and responding to the young people, I was able to see it was important to them.

I wrote at the end of each day about what had happened, and I learned so much from that. Writing is like talking to someone. It forces you to articulate your thoughts and you discover things you didn’t know were there. That’s how I developed my program, by being responsive to the young people, reflecting on what happened, and integrating what I learned into my practice.

That first semester, the students asked to do a show. At that time, dance therapists didn’t do shows, but I said okay. The young people were very worried that other students would jump up on the stage during the show to harass them. I had observed how chaotic and out of control the students were at the informational assembly at the beginning of the year, so I took their concerns seriously. I stacked the deck for the best possible chance of success by keeping the first five rows of the long narrow auditorium for dancers and family only. Families of my teenage students with behavior problems seldom came to the shows, but this created a buffer zone between the performers and the audience. We put on a great show, and it taught the youngsters in the school that they could expect quality on the stage, and it was worthwhile to be respectful audience.

I continued to use the 4’s in our sessions and the young people began to trust me enough to try other ways of dancing. One of the things we began working on that first year was pas de deux, male and female duets that were respectful and lyrical. When people respect and help each other, it’s the highest level of social emotional development. Youngsters in special education are always on the receiving end, and that can be patronizing. I wanted to allow them to support and give to each other.

After the success of the first show, a young man came to me and asked to do freestyle. I didn’t know what it was, so I asked him to show me during lunchtime. He brought his friends and they danced with athleticism, skill and wit. When they told me they “battled” in the streets with dance, I was so excited. They were using dance to express themselves in a very prosocial way, sublimating their aggression through the art form. This was in 1979, soon after the birth of hip hop, and my young people were on the front lines of culture, the avant garde. The first show that they performed freestyle, they wanted to do a freestyle contest. I said, “No, let’s call it an exhibition.” But it turned out to be an exhilarating contest! I did persuade them not to stick up their middle fingers when they made their freezes. The dancing was heartfelt and bravura, and it brought the whole school together.

The music in those early years (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and others) was beautiful and appropriate for school. Over the years, the young people brought me music by Jay-Z and Sean Paul, some of which had objectional language. We discussed it and I challenged them to get me the radio version. Teenagers are bombarded with explicit messaging from youth and general culture. The thing I wanted to teach them was code switching, to let them consider the context when choosing words. Understand what’s appropriate and who you are speaking to. If you’re working a service job and you say the f-bomb, you may get fired.

Unlike a dance therapist who has open structure, my groups became more about creating dances. We also did a lot of performing at the school, at other DOE functions, and at cultural events and venues such as Lincoln Center. When we just danced for fun, it was usually the 4’s, which had many variations. If someone new came in, I’d ask a group member to help catch them up. There’s a leader who “calls” what to do in the 4’s. It trained students how to receive feedback from the group and learn to take care of each other. One of our most memorable performances was for adolescent in-patients at Manhattan Psychiatric Center. My young people performed a program called The Beat, which culminated in bringing audience members to the stage to dance the 4’s with our dancers. We had come full circle.

Then I went to teach in the South Bronx for 21 years. This was a largely Latinx population, and I learned a lot about Latin music. I already knew merengue and the cha cha cha, and my young people taught me bachata. I used merengue and bachata as a vehicles for choreography and didn’t use the 4’s very much.

I studied salsa intensively with Eddie Torres, the teacher of teachers, and Jimmy Anton. Both are master teachers. I developed skills as a follower, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to learn how to lead. Eddie didn’t teach women how to lead, but Jimmy did, so I apprenticed myself to him for two and a half years, demonstrating and leading in his classes. Once I felt confident in leading and could take any partner and lead them through complicated turn patterns, I felt ready to bring salsa into my program. It took me years before I did that. How can I, a little old white lady, presume to teach salsa to Latinx teenagers unless I’m really competent in the genre? I think it’s important to have respect for the art form as well as to have the credibility of doing it correctly and at a high level before you teach it.

I continued with freestyle, or break dancing, as well. I had a group I called the Fabulous All-Stars, kind of a Venn diagram of the best dancers and those with the most serious behavior problems. I remember when we auditioned for the Apollo Theater for the first time and made it into the showcase. I wondered how anything could ever be that wonderful again. Then the next year, a young man came who did power tumbling but who was very fragile emotionally and very oppositional. All the teachers in the school hated working with him. He told me he wanted a career in dance, so I told him he would have to learn how to teach. A 14-year-old came in that same year and loved what the older youngster did. Even though I usually worked in groups, I held sessions with just the two of them, supporting the older one in teaching the younger one. We made it to the Apollo again that next year, based largely on their dancing. My student is now a street performer, and I see him occasionally around New York. I was so gratified the time he called his crew over and introduced me as his dance teacher. He is now a teacher himself.

I have been teaching at NYU since 1994, and before that I taught in the dance therapy masters program at Hunter College for eight years. My doctorate is in school and child psychology. As a psychologist, I was recruited by District 75 to be part of their three-person Positive Behavior Support (PBS) team. D75 is the NYCDOE district for students with serious disabilities. They have schools all over the city, and my job was to travel throughout the city to train teachers and consult on serious behavior problems. I was open to that, but I wanted to stay with the young people I was working with at the time. I made a deal where I was with my young people doing dance and theater groups two days a week, and teaching and consulting for D75 three days a week.

When I started my career, children with severe disabilities were not permitted in public schools. It wasn’t until 1975 that all children were guaranteed a free and appropriate education by PL94.142. I was on the ground floor to see that change. Fast forward to 1997, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized. It mandated PBS as opposed to punishment to shape behavior. PBS advocated universal strategies for all students and targeted strategies for those who need a little more to be their best. For example, if I want the students to come to attention, I put my index finger on my lips and raise my other hand. This is an example of a universal strategy. It won’t always work, so I may have to augment it with targeted strategies, like walking closer to a child who is still talking. Universal and targeted strategies help about 90 to 95 percent of students to engage with learning. There are always a few students for whom “nothing works” and an intensive, individualized plan has to be developed for them. This is done through a process called functional behavior assessment (FBA) to determine why the student engages in the behavior and how to effectively address it. My partner on the PBS team and I developed the FBA procedure for D75. I taught a course at NYU for 10 years for classroom teachers which culminated in developing an FBA and behavior intervention plan for their students with serious, persistently challenging behaviors.

Every little thing that happens, even the seemingly bad things, there’s always something in it that’s positive and, at the very least, that you can learn from.

How would you describe your work now?

I retired in 2013 and was recruited to be a mentor for new dance teachers in the NYCDOE. I visit them and watch their classes. Then we talk about what happened and break down what’s going well, what are the challenges and the next steps to address challenges. As someone who comes in supposedly as a leader, I learn so much from the dance educators I work with, including my mentees and students. Since 2006, I’ve been teaching at the Dance Education Laboratory (DEL) at the 92nd Street Y. We offer courses for the dance education community and train Pre-K and now 3-K teachers. I also teach in the NYCDOE Students with Disabilities Initiative for dance and other arts educators who want to learn more about working with youngsters with disabilities. I consult with dance companies and train their teaching artists to work with students with disabilities. I’m currently working on a curriculum for elders with Ailey community outreach.

How has your training and expertise as a dance therapist influenced your work as a dance educator and vice versa?

My training as a dance therapist has been invaluable. It taught me to start where people are and work with their strengths. It also taught me to use the process orientation, where you develop the movement behavior that you see in the group. I think every dance educator should study dance therapy to learn how to attend to the children in their classes and see what they are doing, instead of just thinking about carrying on with the lesson plan. I see teachers with voluminous lesson plans citing all the standards, but they’re not looking at what the children are actually doing. For me, good teaching is starting with a structure, seeing what they do, and then responding to what they’re doing with the material.

Both dance educators and dance therapists need to learn how to organize their classes and groups to create order and engage their students. PBS is a great way to think about this. I tell the teachers I mentor to watch how the students enter the class. If they all run in wildly, it might be better to have them enter together and sit against the wall, have a friendly check-in, and then have them dance one by one to their spots. Make it a routine. That kind of structure is important, and something dance therapists need to avail themselves of when working with youngsters with behavioral issues, especially in large groups.

What changes/shifts have you noticed during your career in terms of dance education for students with disabilities?

There are many more people working with children with disabilities, which is good. However, they need to have training in how to organize their classes and groups to be effective, whether their goals are therapeutic, teaching technique, or dance-making.

Dance educators are increasingly being seen as an important part of the school community. When I first started to work in the NYCDOE, dance was considered a somewhat frivolous extra. I worried that I might have to teach math the next year. That’s why I got a doctorate; I wanted power over my destiny, as well as a deeper understanding and strategies for treating mental illness and behavioral challenges.

I think we as dance therapists have missed so many boats. We were into mindfulness a long time ago, but somehow we weren’t able to be recognized as the professionals who can bring that work to people with a wide range of issues. Psychologists took that one over, using manualized treatment protocols, which is the opposite of process orientation. I often tell dance therapists who want to work with children and adolescents to get certified as dance educators. The dance therapy training, while vital and informative, may be difficult to translate into a job. Dance educators have seen a more upward trajectory in terms of professionalism. Those who are working with students with special needs need to have a more therapeutic orientation so they can engage the youngsters and help them to develop self-regulation and socialization skills, along with knowledge and skills in dance.

What larger trends have you seen emerge in dance education recently?

There’s more collaboration on a lot of different levels. For instance, there’s more emphasis on helping students to collaborate with each other. That’s something administrators are realizing that dance educators can offer. When you break into small groups and do choreography, students have to work together. Then there’s collaboration between dance educators and other professionals who are learning what dance educators can offer. We may collaborate with other arts educators or classroom teachers to connect to curriculum themes.

In the 1990s when NYCDOE District 75 was preparing to introduce the Balanced Literacy curriculum in programs for youngsters with severe emotional disturbances, many staff had low expectations. They complained that it was unfair to ask the children to sit closely together on the rug for the read-aloud.  They feared the closeness would provoke fights. I went to an ADTA conference that October and saw what my dance therapist colleague Rena Kornblum was doing with self-calming and spatial awareness in her anti-bullying program. I realized that these were the academic readiness skills that all children need to be successful in school: the ability to share space and to calm themselves so they can attend to lessons. I began teaching space bubbles to show students how to be aware of and share space and the 4 B’s for self-calming. I included them in the book Dance Education for Diverse Learners, published by the NYCDOE Office of Arts and Special Projects, and in all my teaching. Over time, these valuable strategies have been adopted by many NYCDOE schools.

Broadly speaking, what do you think dance education will look like in 2050?

There’s greater recognition of the importance of dance in human development. Our first language is a body language, and our body’s intelligence, apart from cognition, is finally being formally recognized as kinesthetic intelligence. Issues of proximity arouse a lot of emotion and, in New York City, space is a luxury for everyone. We have to work out space issues in schools. Part of the recognition of the value of dance will be in creating appropriate spaces in schools for children to dance and stretch out. I’m hoping that as time goes on, the need for schools to have a dance studio will become more supported at an institutional level.

I want to see more dance for everyday people in popular culture too. When I first saw So You Think You Can Dance, I didn’t like it. I thought it was too focused on technical skills and tricks. Now I love it and other shows like it for the artistry, but I still think we need to get away from the idea that the arts are a competitive enterprise best left to the experts while the rest of us are simply audience. People come together and dance pleasurably all the time. Children with disabilities can benefit on every level from dancing. Dance engages them and helps them to develop self-regulation and socialization skills. It can also give them a reason to accept structure and rigor. When they perform, the experience of being a part of a thing of beauty is the ultimate affirmation.

I hope to see a dance teacher or dance therapist in every school, a space in every school where children can stretch out and dance freely and safely, and a recognition that everybody can dance. Expertise is beautiful and uplifting to behold, but you don’t have to be a virtuoso to dance. After decades of working with children and young people with disabilities, and going through the aging process myself, I know everyone can dance.