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Last dance at South High? Minneapolis schools eye cuts to arts programs

5 June 2022

The last of the crowd streamed into the auditorium at South High School in Minneapolis to strains of “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” then the beats faded and the stage went to black.

Showtime for the school’s dance program. For two hours, there were choreographed steps — some drawn up by students, all of it generating applause. But the old-school hip hop moves, that’s when the roars came from the kids in the back of the hall.

But was this the last dance at South High?

Proposals to cut the arts run rampant in Minneapolis Public Schools, and if approved by the school board this month, South High students would see the worst of it.

The school’s music, drama/theater and dance programs all are taking hits, with the harshest being dealt to dance. South has just one dance teacher, and her hours are being cut nearly in half, jeopardizing community partnerships, a safe space for students and talent showcases.

“South Dance most likely is not going to have performances next year or anything in the same vein,” senior Clara Conry predicted recently.

Elsewhere, full-time-equivalent music positions are being eliminated at North High, Andersen Middle School and Hmong International Academy Elementary. Olson Middle School will continue without a dance teacher, and three other schools are losing full-time art positions. Many others are taking part-time cuts.

Contrast that with St. Paul. There, decisions were made to close schools to give elementary students a “well-rounded education” including subjects like the arts taught by specialists. Dance cuts? None. Three music positions are being eliminated in the high schools, but there are four openings, leaving the district plus one, a spokesman said.

Minneapolis cites enrollment losses and teacher contract costs among the reasons to eliminate 280 teaching positions. There are more vacancies than that, however, the district says, meaning those bounced from their jobs could land elsewhere, if it’s a good fit.

But students whose specialists are laid off or who have their hours reduced are bound to be short-changed, and at South High, the kids aren’t happy. Neither are parents. A flyer distributed at the South High dance show instructed people on which school board members to call in hopes of restoring the music and dance cuts.

Sense of community

Dance studio families know the drill accompanying year-end shows and costume requirements. Hours spent online or at arts and crafts stores. Then the work, using toothpicks and glue to place crystals and sequins into crazy patterns.

It’s not as intense in the high schools.

When she was younger, Conry danced tap and ballet at a studio, but as she got older, the expectation was she’d have to do it five days a week. That was too much to ask of a teen who had too many other things she wanted to try.

She became one of the nation’s top high school debaters, and she stuck with dance for the enjoyment of it — putting four years into the program at South.

Making the case to protect dance comes naturally, then, but Conry takes it an extra step, too, doubling back in conversation to point out how students like herself who feel down, or panicked, know they will be comforted, safe and supported in the dance room.

There, they are heard, she said.

Conry knows what goes into the job, too, and she can envision things like the program’s partnerships with local arts organizations slipping away.

Senior Aaliyah Pollard, once nervous even among friends, has found courage in the community created in the dance room.

“It’s just easy to be yourself,” she said. She testified against music and dance cuts at a recent Minneapolis school board meeting.

District officials say cuts were made across all content areas and across all schools. But a sampling of total positions eliminated finds the arts with 18.5 full-time-equivalent positions lost, compared with 14.7 in social studies and 12.8 in math. Minneapolis has 5.4 vacancies in music, including a part-time position at North High, but none in drama/theater or dance.

Ramiyah Jackson is North High’s student council president and an aspiring actress, but because there are no theater classes, she has to pursue that dream elsewhere, she said. Now come the cuts to existing programs, further squeezing creative outlets for kids.

“We have to figure out a way to contribute to the futures of students — and the arts is a really big part of that,” she said last week.

Feeling grateful

South High’s spring concert was more of a neighborhood block party than a dance recital.

For many dancers, what they wear to school is good enough for the stage, and if a black skirt in one dance can be jazzed up later with a splash of gold, all the better. Skill levels varied, with slight wobbles after pinpoint turns, but energy pulsed through the night.

There were serious moments, too, including a pandemic-related piece created in partnership with the Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts.

Conry choreographed a number, “Fragmentation,” and danced in several others. Pollard subtly placed her head on the shoulder of another dancer at the conclusion of “Stolen Moments.”

All leading to the finale, “3 Dances from Ghana,” and the evening’s most heavily synchronized movements. Drummers pounded and kept pounding, driving each of the numbers, and they continued as the dancers lined up to take their bows.

Hands were clasped and arms raised.

With that, teacher Nancy Nair stepped from the side of the stage, moving with the music, barefoot and smiling, wild bursts of applause and cheers filling the room. And after inviting everyone to catch their breath, she announced each senior would receive a rose and she went down the line with microphone in hand so they could say their names — until there at the end was Clara Conry, waiting for her with a bouquet of flowers.

This is a community, and the teacher was among friends.

“I am so honored to be part of this dance program here at South,” Nair said.

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