Burncoat Dance Department: ‘a gem within the city’ (feature story)
Worcester Magazine . Stephanie Jarvis Campbell. May 30, 2019.

"And everyone here has a minor in dance.”

It’s a line from the Broadway version of the song “Arabian Nights,” and as students from the Burncoat Dance Department chassé and chaîné across the stage for dress rehearsal and then later the performance of their annual production, it’s clear that even though they are in middle and high school, they could be well on their way.

Some of the students have had years of dance training at private studios, while for others, stepping into the studio at Burncoat Arts Magnet is the first time they’ve ever put on a pair of ballet or jazz shoes. For some, the stage is just one of many on which they’ve danced or competed; for others, The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, where the annual production is held, is an experience in and of itself. But by graduation, they all share one thing – each and every one of them loves to dance. And, in the process, they have learned valuable lessons about the art form and its history, themselves and the students they share Room H15 with, all through a program that has successfully merged academics and arts for more than three decades.

“We’re a very unique school. We’re a magnet school and we’re very lucky,” said Kellie Shea, who has served as the Burncoat Dance Department director for the last five years.

The dance program is just one of five fine arts at the school – music, theater, media arts and visual arts are the others. A six-year track, it begins in seventh grade at Burncoat Middle and continues at the high school through 12th grade. Regular academic classes are integrated with courses in the field of study, and in the dance magnet, 50 percent of the final grade is based on students’ work in the studio and 50 percent is on their classwork, such as tests and homework, according to Shea. The students take two periods of dance a day, whether it’s ballet, jazz, modern/contemporary, music theater, improvisation and choreography, or practice for the annual “An Evening of Dance,” which this year was “1001 Arabian Nights – The Tale of Aladdin.”

“It teaches them everything they need,” Shea said of the program. “Even if they’re not going to be a professional dancer, it prepares them for college.”

Currently, about 125 students are involved in the magnet program across all six grades. Students do have to audition for the program, but admittance is not based on technique and experience. For every student who has had extensive training from a young age at a private studio, there is another who has never danced before. Because of that, the staff considers work ethic, effort, attitude and trainability, Shea said, and then, once the school year begins, the students are placed into dance classes based on their technical levels.

“The most important thing is, is this kid coachable?” she explained.

Despite their different levels of training, by the time the students graduate, they have a vast knowledge of dance history, repertoire, vocabulary and technique, and it is often difficult to tell who danced from an early age and who didn’t start training until middle or high school through the program, Shea said. Many graduates have attended prestigious dance college programs, worked on Broadway, performed in music videos and for concerts, and danced with the Celtics and New England Patriots.

“It’s an all-encompassing program, from the beginner to the one who’s looking to go to college for dance,” Shea said.

“You can come in with no dance experience and leave as one of the best dancers,” said Emma Jalbert, 13. She had already danced prior to coming to Burncoat, but loves the new opportunities the program brings her.

Christina Reece, 16, added, “For a new person coming in, remember hard work beats talent. If you’ve never danced before, don’t get discouraged if your leg doesn’t go as high as everyone else’s.”

The magnet program’s roots go back more than 30 years. In 1980, Dr. James Garvey was asked to take over as principal of what was then Burncoat Junior High, and he proposed creating an arts magnet program. “Burncoat was having problems. It was known as a troubled school,” he recalled. “I had to do a lot of things to change the atmosphere of the school.”

His idea was to launch a program that would link the arts to academics, and in 1985, he received approval. “I wanted to attract kids from all over the city to come to Burncoat because, at the time, it was a school you didn’t want to go to,” Garvey said.

For the dance program, Garvey asked Joan Sheary, who owned a successful dance studio in Worcester, to write the curriculum and serve as its director. Sheary would go on to direct the program for 30 years, even while running her own studio, which she didn’t close until 1999; Garvey would work to expand the arts magnet to Burncoat High School and eventually to St. Nicholas Avenue School, which would later become Worcester Arts Magnet School for pre-kindergarten through grade six. In 1989, he would become principal of South High School and later, from 1993 to 1999, the superintendent of Worcester Public Schools.

Sheary, who trained in New York as a young girl and became a Radio City Rockette at age 16 for four years, was the sole teacher for both the Burncoat middle and high schools for much of the beginning stages of the program. Later, the program gained a part-time assistant, called a dance consultant, and Shea, herself a student of Sheary’s growing up, joined in 2005 when the consultant at the time was leaving. There are now two full-time teachers — Shea, who took over as director five years ago when Sheary retired, and Ann Marie Keane, who teaches at the middle school — plus two consultants, Jacqueline Head and Nia Nelson. They all have extensive dance experience: Shea is director of Central Mass Dance Academy, Keane teaches at PZ Dance Academy, Head has been a teacher and choreographer at Charlotte Klein Dance Centers for 20 years, and Nelson is a graduate of the Burncoat program and former professional dancer with the Massachusetts Pirates Dance Team.

But even though the program’s enrollment and staff have increased, the studio space and classrooms, which are located in the middle school, have not, Shea said. “As the program grows, we’re running out of physical space,” she noted.

It is similar to how the program began – Sheary recalled having a “shoestring budget” and no classroom in the beginning, but said that with time and patience, it evolved.

“We started in the foyer in the entrance of the middle school. Sometimes we had to hold classes in the cafeteria between lunches. Finally, they gave me one classroom. It was probably 20 years into the program that I got the second classroom.”

Even the annual performance originally didn’t exist; the students only did demonstrations at first, and a traveling cast helped draw more attention to the dance program. But, when the enrollment expanded, Sheary began the tradition of the end-of-year performances, which were held in any number of places – the Burncoat stage or gym and the old Worcester technical high school, which they also eventually outgrew.

“The people were literally sitting in the aisles because we didn’t have any more seats,” Sheary recalled.

Because of the magnet program’s success, Garvey said, Burncoat became a school that “people wanted to be at – and stay at,” and more than three decades after its creation, it continues to draw large numbers. The dance program, in fact, has a waiting list of students who want to get into the program, according to Shea.

“When I was here with Joan, it was always called the best-kept secret,” said Shea. “It’s like a gem within the city.”

It still is – not only has it brought in students from outside the Burncoat district, it has attracted some from beyond Worcester’s borders and public schools. One of the program’s dancers is from Shrewsbury, and Reece went to the private Notre Dame Academy as a freshman and then transferred to Burncoat for her sophomore year. After shadowing a student in the program, it was an easy decision, said Reece, who was dancing with the In Da Zone team at the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester and continues to do so.

Because the arts magnet programs are open to all students in the Worcester district, it draws students from other city neighborhoods as well. Seventeen-year-old Jennyfer Amparo, who would have attended South High, decided four years ago to attend the Burncoat program. She has danced since she was 10 and recently left her studio to focus on her senior year – but she continues to dance every day at school. This year, she was cast as Jasmine in the “1001 Arabian Nights” production.

“It was a hard decision,” she said of leaving the studio. But, she added, the Burncoat program has been “very important because I’ve been able to do what I love and continue to improve.”

Other students, like Rumney Villatico and Dave Nubour, both 16, didn’t have the opportunity to dance before coming to Burncoat. They both joined the program as seventh-graders.

“I danced in my basement,” Nubour said, adding that if he wasn’t at Burncoat, “I’d still be dancing in my basement.”

Villatico said that even though she had never danced before and didn’t know anyone in the program, everyone welcomed her. “If you didn’t know a step, you always had someone to ask. If you were going through stuff, dance was the place to forget it,” she said.

Like many others, Elsie Fuakye, 16, came to Burncoat specifically for the program. Although she didn’t have any previous formal training, she did take some dance classes when she was a student at Worcester Arts Magnet School. “When it was time to sign up for middle school, I knew what I wanted to do,” she said.

For those who already live in the Burncoat neighborhood, it gives those who are interested in the arts an incentive to stay in the district, like Caitlyn Parks, 13, who originally was going to enroll in the theater magnet until she attended the dance open house. “I was excited to be here,” she said of the school. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I have to go here.’”

The program isn’t all roses and tutus, though – “these kids work hard,” Shea said. “We brag about them, but they’re more than the average high school student.”

To stay in the program, the students have to maintain at least a B in their dance classes, and their academic grades have to be a certain average as well. If they are struggling with school and grades, Shea and her staff work with the students to help and encourage them. “First and foremost, they’re here for their education. It encourages the children to get extra help so they can stay in the program,” Shea said.

“They’re on an audition based on the day they start in the program,” she said. “It keeps them accountable, and they want to do better academically – it’s like an incentive. We preach it from the beginning – your attitude, your work ethic and your behavior in and out of the classroom.”

And there are, for sure, rules inside the studio as well – such as dress code, timed locker runs and some all-around tough love.

But, Amparo said, “It’s good, tough love. They just want to push us to motivate us. They’re very supportive, not only in the dance room, but outside the room.”

“If I didn’t have Miss Shea, I don’t think I would have straight As. They train us well,” Parks said.

Many of the upperclassmen belong to the National Honor Society, as well as the school’s new chapter of the National Honor Society for Dance Arts, which is overseen by the National Dance Education Organization and allows students who have a 3.0 or above grade point average and an average of 85 or above in dance to apply. They also have to document points earned for participation in dance class hours, along with community service and other activities.

Not only do the students dance in school, but they dance after school as well, with numerous community performances and appearances. Because the school doesn’t have a cheerleading squad, the fall dance team performs at football games and the winter team is at the basketball games. The winter dance team also competes at Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators Association (MSSAA) events and has won state champion titles five times – in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. The fall team will also begin competing at MSSAA-sanctioned events this year. All of the practices for the dance team are after school — not during regular classes — and the students often give up vacation time to rehearse as well, Shea said.

“Pretty much throughout the school year, they’re here after school three days a week,” she said.

During this time of year, the students also have intense rehearsals for the annual “An Evening of Dance,” which is always a dance version of a themed show; this year’s is based on the Broadway musical “Aladdin.” Full-run rehearsals begin in March every year, and some of the larger numbers are done during after-school time. And, because the dance magnet is tied to academics, so is the performance – the students learn about themes in the show and how those can relate back to their own lives. Past musicals have included “Frozen,” “Cats,” “The Wiz,” “Peter Pan,” “Seussical” and the American musical songbook based on all shows from the 1920s onward.

Some of the students also participate in sports or continue to dance at their private studios, like Maighen Laferriere, 17, who spends her free time at Greendale Dance.

“Here, I dance during the day and go home for an hour and go right back to dance,” she said, calling it the “best of both worlds. Anything dance, I’m part of.”

Even though Laferriere has danced since the age of 2, she always knew she wanted to attend Burncoat. “It’s been an amazing experience. I’ve learned so much more than dance,” she said. “It’s been a huge honor to be part of this program.”

Other students in the program echoed Laferriere’s sentiments, saying not only have they learned about dance, they also have received invaluable experience in time management and prioritization, teamwork, communication, acceptance of critiques and more – and, in the process, have gained a supportive dance family, both from their teachers and the students.

“We all really support each other. If we fall — and we fall all the time — we just clap it out,” Laferriere said. “It’s dance – nobody’s perfect. You have to be willing to make some mistakes in order to improve.”

Students called the studio a safe environment, one where they’re not afraid to try a new step or dance in front of their peers. “You’re supported by everyone in the classroom. You can feel the teamwork and environment in the room,” said Emily White, 17, who came to her home school of Burncoat in the seventh grade.

Rachael Delapara, 16, agreed, saying, “It’s a very family-like atmosphere. We all have one thing in common – we all love to dance.”

That’s particularly important, said Delapara, “especially if you’re a person who’s not good at talking about things. You can put what you want to say through movement.”

Through the years of the program, no matter who has led it and no matter where practice has been held, that has always been one constant – “I taught them to leave your problems at the door,” Sheary said.

“So many of them come into school angry. When you step into that room, I tried to explain to them, this is where you become a different person. It’s not just about learning dance,” Sheary said. “For a lot of them, it became the reason they came to school. It had a purpose.”

hea follows the same philosophy in her teaching, as well. “The whole mantra is whatever is going on outside this classroom, leave it at the door. Dance is their outlet. Just come in and dance; it makes you feel better.”

Through this, the students also learn acceptance of each other and everyone’s differences. “We have a lot of different people here,” Naa Odjidja, 16, said. “You have to learn how to work with them and accept them for who they are.”

Those were all the very goals that the program had from the start, beginning with Sheary, who inspired her students but demanded hard work. “They’re not just going to learn dance — they’re going to learn self-esteem, discipline, organization — all those attributes. I would get so many emails that said, ‘Now I understand, Miss Sheary, why you would insist on this or that,’” she said of her graduates. “You’re not just training a dancer – you’re also training a young lady or a gentleman for the rest of their lives. That’s what this program is about.”

It’s why proponents of arts education believe the program is needed and essential to a well-rounded education. “Originally I started my career as a physical education teacher,” Garvey recalled. “One of the things I quickly learned when I first started teaching, besides academics, to keep kids in school and achieve and do their best, was to look at athletics and arts to keep them involved and excited about their education. The goal was to have a link between academic and arts.”

Over the years, Garvey said, the arts have “tragically” been deemed not as important, in “answer to the city/state/nation on how well you do in math, science, social studies, which isn’t wrong, but it shouldn’t be to the exclusion of arts or physical education or enhanced enrichment subjects.”

Current Superintendent of Schools Maureen Binienda agreed, saying, “Students stay in school and programs that are engaging. This is a very engaging program and very unique.”

Although in the past cuts were made to arts programs in schools because of a “stressful” budget, Binienda said times and attitudes have shifted. “This will be the first year we’re not looking at cutting teachers,” she said. “Since 1997 on, there’s been budget cuts. You can’t expand a program if you can’t pay for the teachers.”

This year, however, the dance program will benefit from the addition of a third full-time teacher, to be shared between both Burncoat schools, Binienda said.

Calling the Burncoat dance magnet a strong, successful program, Binienda said it helps kids see dance as a lifelong recreational activity, particularly for those who were never exposed to the art form before, and it helps students form strong bonds with their coaches and teachers. “Those relationships are important,” she said.

“I wonder how many people really know the extent of quality of professional training these kids are getting. I think that’s the absolute uniqueness of it. And it’s happening as part of your school day,” Binienda said. “It’s really showcasing our public schools in a nice way.”

It’s a subject that Barbara Copithorne has immense interest in – so much so that she has made a documentary, “Toe the Line,” about arts in education and specifically focusing on the Burncoat program when Sheary was director.

“This is a model that should be replicated, duplicated, adapted, adopted,” she said.

In 1999, Copithorne’s daughter took a summer dance program in Maine, at which Sheary was a teacher. Her daughter had always loved to dance, but returned home with a new passion and confidence that Copithorne found amazing for a 9 year old. Years later, after a career as a book and magazine editor, Copithorne enrolled in BU film school, and for her associate’s degree project, she had to create a five-minute documentary about someone inspirational. Knowing the impact Sheary had on her daughter’s life, Copithorne asked to step inside the teacher’s public school classroom.

“This five-minute thing became a feature-length documentary,” Copithorne recalled.

“Toe the Line: Arts Education for Life” (toethelinemovie.com) follows several students through their years in the program as well as for five years after graduation, along with an up-close and personal look into Sheary’s teaching methods and lessons.

“She wasn’t just a teacher to these kids. She was a mentor,” Copithorne said, adding that Sheary would always tell her students, ”‘If you can’t be a lady or a gentleman, if you don’t have class, you can’t be a dancer.’”

From 450 hours of footage beginning in March 2009, Copithorne created a 76-minute documentary that showcases the importance of having arts in school as an outlet for students. “It’s about getting kids to be successful and stay in school,” she said. “It addresses the dropout rate; it addresses teamwork.”

“Toe the Line” has truly been a labor of love for Copithorne. A resident of Newton for 27 years, she moved to Los Angeles in 2017 but returns to the Worcester area to keep up with the program and promote her documentary. She recently was in the city to watch this year’s production of “1001 Arabian Nights.” And although she has put thousands of her own money into the filming of “Toe the Line,” it isn’t enough to see it to completion. Copithorne said she needs an additional $50,000 for scoring, sound design and editing, TV viewing compression, color correction, big-screen surround sound that is required for film festival screenings, promotion and marketing.

Copithorne has started a GoFundMe and also sells copies of “Toe the Line: Lessons of a Lifelong Dance Teacher,” a book filled with Sheary’s words of wisdom and daily teachers, as well as illustrations using photos and footage from filming the documentary.

Once the documentary is completely finished, Copithorne’s goal is to have a viewing party in Worcester. “This was never about making money. I just want everyone to see it,” she said, adding, “I want kids in school, I want colleges, I want people nationwide to see this. This program is so key and instrumental to Worcester.”

Although the students in “Toe the Line” have all graduated, the documentary could easily be focused on the current dancers in the program. The film version is what happens in her classroom today, said Shea, who is also featured in the documentary.

“We make it work – in the middle of an urban environment, the success rate is there,” Shea said.

Of all the students who enroll in and complete the dance magnet at Burncoat, 100 percent graduate, according to Shea. Overall, Worcester has a graduation rate of 83.5 percent for four-year programs and 87.1 percent for five-year programs, which include special education and ESL, Binienda said.

“I think arts are so important in the lives of children,” Shea said. “They might not be a straight A student, but they might be a very good drawer or an amazing dancer.”

Some of the students, she said, have tough home lives and have worked so hard to finish the program – without it, “they might not have made it through school.”

The day after “An Evening of Dance,” the students gather in their classroom to talk about the performance. But there is still work to be done, of course. They will perform a condensed version at the middle school’s spring concert and take a traveling version on the road. There are academic and dance finals, plus their regular technique classes and the solo showcase, when each student performs their original choreography in class.

Over the years, the department tries to record all the performances to put in portfolios for the seniors, so if they are going to college for dance, they can use the videos as part of their audition process, or just to keep to look back on down the road.

“They can see their growth as a dancer, and usually the growth they see is huge,” Shea said.

“To watch somebody who’s never danced get on the stage and be the star or be the leader — or maybe they were the shy kid in the corner, and now they’re doing things they never thought they’d be doing — then you’re like, ‘This is why I do it,’” Shea said.

For the six students who are graduating from the program and Burncoat, Shea said, they are realizing that their lives are about to change dramatically. And it’s hard for the teachers, too – “I’m known for being tough and not showing much emotion, but a little piece of my heart chips away when someone leaves,” said Shea.

Of the six seniors, some want to pursue dance as a career; others have different aspirations but aren’t ready to pack away their shoes just yet. After all, as Sheary said, “Once dance — or any art — is in you, it’s there to stay.”

White has been accepted to Dean College’s Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance as a double major in business and dance; she wants to concentrate on choreography and studio management. Amparo will attend UMass Lowell as a biology major, with aspirations of becoming a physician, although she plans to participate in the university’s dance team.

“This is honestly a great program. If there’s one thing I’m going to miss about high school, it’s the dance program,” Amparo said. “I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had. It’s so awesome to be part of the program.”

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