Celebrities Swing the Spotlight Toward Arts Education

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It took just seconds for the legendary dancer Jacques d'Amboise to grab the attention of hundreds of 4th and 5th graders here last week. And all but the most reluctant students and teachers soon were bouncing and leaning to and fro in dramatic fashion, just as he had instructed them.

‘I want to use the arts and my knowledge of dance to motivate children to find excellence in themselves. What separates us from [lower life forms], what makes us human, is that we've found ways of expressing our wonder and emotion through the arts.’

Jacques d'Amboise,
National Dance Institute

It wasn't Mr. d'Amboise's celebrity status that coaxed these children to their feet to learn his "Trail Dance," for few were aware of the worldwide fame he achieved as a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet a quarter of a century ago. It was his enthusiasm and passion for dance that mobilized more than 400 rambunctious dancers to move in sync for an hourlong lesson at the University of Virginia.

Arts education has consumed the dancer for more than two decades. This year, that fervor has taken him on a seven-month hike from Maine to Georgia along the Appalachian Trail to promote the arts and to raise money for the institute he started to expose New York City children to dance. Mr. d'Amboise left Maine in May and has 37 stops planned along the way.

"I want to use the arts and my knowledge of dance to motivate children to find excellence in themselves," he said during a break here last week. "What separates us from [lower life forms], what makes us human, is that we've found ways of expressing our wonder and emotion through the arts."

Over the past decade, as arts budgets have been squeezed in many districts, and the pressures of academic standards and student assessments have wrested class time away for other subjects, advocates have been struggling to re-establish the status of the performing arts in the curriculum. Stars of the stage and screen, as well as those in the music world, have been lending their names, their talents, and their money to help them do so:

  • Familiar personalities, from Big Bird to actor Richard Dreyfuss, have lobbied Congress urging increased funding for education.
  • Each year, theatrical artists are enlisted to participate in a theater-based curriculum in New York City schools as part of Inside Broadway.
  • Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis teamed up with Harman International, a manufacturer of musical instruments, four years ago to put musicians in the classroom as part of a music-appreciation curriculum.
  • Saxophonist Kenny G started the Miracles Foundation this year to support in-school music programs.
  • The cable-TV music channel VH1 has raised millions of dollars to buy instruments and improve music instruction for students nationwide.
  • Musician John Tesh has promised instruments, sheet music, and a portion of his ticket sales to selected schools in cities on his fall concert tour.

Celebrity Style

"Education falls very high on the list of things celebrities choose to endorse," said Alma Viator, the president of the Washington-based Cause Celebre, which matches celebrities with causes and organizations. "For performing artists ... arts education is an easy sell. The reason celebrity advocates are so useful is that they can generate a lot more media attention ... than some dry delegate speaking about the same issue."

One of Ms. Viator's clients, the Creative Coalition, a group of entertainers led by actor William Baldwin, has chosen arts education as one of its top concerns.

While the one-time photo opportunities and longer-term connections between celebrities and schools bring excitement and motivation for students and teachers, it is difficult to gauge the impact of such partnerships.

"I don't know if one celebrity can make a difference. If you look at the strategy as the solution to the larger problem, that's pretty short-sighted," said John J. Mahlmann, the executive director of the Music Educators National Conference in Reston, Va. "But the more people are talking about the issue, the more likely we will deal with the problem. When celebrities talk about [arts education], that gets attention."

The group points to its own public service campaign, Why Music?, as proof that celebrity endorsements raise awareness of the importance of music education. After each segment in the series--featuring singers Faith Hill and Mary Chapin Carpenter, jazz great Billie Taylor, and classical musician James Galway--runs on television or radio, inquiries to MENC spike up significantly.

A Personal Touch

Mr. d'Amboise's National Dance Institute, which promotes integration of the arts throughout the curriculum, has raised millions of dollars since 1976 to bring dance instruction to some of New York's poorest schools. Schools, dance companies, and community groups, among others, have copied his instructional approach.

Principal Zoe Jenkins knows that when violinist Regina Carter and her band visited Olympic Hills Elementary School in Seattle, participation in the school's music program, which is available to 4th and 5th graders, jumped to 95 percent.

Ms. Carter's appearance was courtesy of "how to listen," a Harman International program that sends musicians to schools throughout the country and provides a curriculum to help children learn various music forms.

"The fact that she was a famous person was irrelevant to my students," said Ms. Jenkins, who added that just 15 percent of eligible students were in the school's music program before she signed up for the Harman program three years ago. Olympic Hills' curriculum uses the arts as a way to enhance basic skills in other subjects.

"What made the difference was that she was so personal and so engaging," Ms. Jenkins said of Ms. Carter. "She touched the children's hearts."

Teacher Helen Truslow agrees that it is the combination of the personality and the message that gets the point across. Ms. Truslow's 4th grade class from Stony Point School near Charlottesville learned the Trail Dance from Mr. d'Amboise.

"This is a great opportunity for children to have exposure to dance and [to] an artist willing to share his time and talents in such an encouraging way," she said.

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Page 6

Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as Celebrities Swing the Spotlight Toward Arts Education
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