A Guide to Getting Through (and making it safely to the other side)

By Sabrina Jacob Washburn, Drama

The return of live theater is just around the corner. I read this morning that “Pass Over,” a modern riff on “Waiting for Godot” that explores race and class written by Antoinette Nwandu, will open on Broadway as early as August 4. The Public Theater is set to open its Shakespeare in the Park program soon, and many of my friends and family members are eagerly buying up tickets to shows slated to re-open throughout the fall. And, hallelujah! Many of my out-of-work actor friends are being called back to their jobs with renewed hope. New York is thirsty (dehydrated!) for live performance, and I predict its return will be as thrilling as we all imagine.

Nothing can beat the feeling of sitting in a dark space with other people, all focused on one electric moment together. It is said that audience members’ heartbeats synchronize when watching a live performance. Certainly, the experience of an ensemble of performers, technicians, and creative leaders coming together under one goal can be life-changing and long-lasting, no matter how brief or liminal the process. The high school theater company is all-too familiar with this notion, having found deep bonds and emotional connections to one another through shows like “Rent” and “As You Like It.” When the prospect of giving up this process to the pandemic for the second school year, a process that is found in the long and dark hours backstage during tech week and while covered in sawdust during strike, I wondered how Grace Theatre Company would survive. How can we continue to build these relationships and strengthen our identity as a company through the tedious and choppy nature of Zoom?

“We can’t do another Zoomsical,” I remember telling Andrew Leonard, our musical director. As successful as our Into the Woods pivot was last year, I could not envision asking our students to embark on yet another Zoom-reimagined project. They were ready for something else, something more personal and connected. So, we set out to make a movie musical, one we could rehearse on Zoom for safety purposes, but then film live on set together (with proper protocols) in order to gain a sense of that “normal” production experience everyone so desired. After some deliberation, we created A Guide to Getting Through, a musical revue featuring scenes and songs from various contemporary musicals that showcase characters finding their way through difficult moments. I also wanted to feature New York City as a symbol of our greater community’s ability to pull through the last year of sadness and uncertainty with the classic “New York tough” resiliency that I also see in so many of my students. So, we set the scenes in various locations all around Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and New Jersey.

This project was certainly ambitious. None of us on the leadership team are experienced filmmakers and there was a steep learning curve as we prepared to launch into a fast and furious shoot week in April. The universe wasn’t necessarily giving us a generous helping hand most days, either. Between rain, COVID cases in the cast, forgotten props, dying batteries, dealing with crowds in Washington Square Park, and general exhaustion, we sometimes wondered how we would pull through. Additionally, I am currently living in Los Angeles and was unable to travel to NYC for the film shoot. This resulted in “Sab-on-a-stick,” a cheeky name for the device set-up that allowed me to direct the shoot over FaceTime. Needless to say, we fought our way through some significant challenges and the show became our own guide to getting through that week.

It is these challenges, however, that actually gave us exactly what we were looking for. Cast and crew members leaning on one another and troubleshooting together brought us back to those intimate backstage moments we were craving. Long production days meant sharing meals outdoors in between calls. Last minute issues meant people had to pitch in and take on tasks they didn’t know they were capable of. In addition to making a show we were all very proud of, students and faculty alike found new aspects of themselves and their relationships that will remain strong after the show closes and the world opens up.

We wrapped up the process with a pajama-themed premiere for the cast and crew in the high school gym, followed by a closing cast party in a sunny backyard. It was clear from the cheers and tears that Grace Theatre Company has endured the many shake-ups of the last year with the same passion and adventurous spirit that has defined us in years past. Here’s to moving forward knowing that, together, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.

A Dance Show for Unprecedented Times

By Jenny Pommiss, Dance

The 2021 Grace Dance Ensemble production, In These Unprecedented Times was an evening of digital dance featuring creations by students, faculty, and guest artist Alice Gosti. It was a celebration of a year’s worth of work, a communion, and an experiment! So much of our recent history has felt like just that – an experiment with no clear answers or directions. This project began as a continuation of that, as it asked our dancers to work over distance, collaborate, create and come together despite circumstances that encourage the opposite. 

The evening began with LIMINALE, a piece created by guest artist Alice Gosti in collaboration with the dancers. LIMINALE was born as a necessity to continue creating work and experimenting with virtual platforms during Covid-19. LIMINALE is a live performance created intentionally for Zoom in which each performer streams directly from their personal spaces, using environments, furniture and memory as inspiration for the movement material. This project challenges the condition of confinement, transforming living space into creative space. Activating memories and everyday objects, LIMINALE unveils surprising movements inspired by home. 

Still from LIMINALE
Still from LIMINALE

This year the students were not only challenged to step into the work of our guest artist, they were also invited to create dance works of their own. In doing so, they were forced to navigate new creative territory and ask questions of their creative process they had never had to ask before. “How do I rehearse over Zoom?” “What can I create that makes the most of this medium?” “How do I make my dancers feel a part of something?” “What are the positives and negatives of creating in separate spaces?” “How do I even teach movement over zoom?!” “Can dance continue to be the magical act it is, even in this altered context?” These are questions they asked of themselves and their dancers. The second half of the evening was devoted to a screening of these original works. It featured works by five student choreographers who directed their dancers over Zoom and in person on some outdoor film shoots.

Still from Daffodils by Josie Macdonald ‘22
Summer G, ‘21 in Painting in My Living Room by Charlotte R. ‘21

A special undertaking by senior Camryn D., included working with Ms. Pommiss’ Dance I class on, what was for most class members, their debut efforts at creating dance for the screen.

Matilda C. ‘24 in Isolating Chaos by Camryn D. ‘21

Ms. Pommiss’ Dance Rep class presented Traces Of You, which explored the technique of layering and superimpositions so that it appeared that the dancers were sharing space and dancing with each other.

Members of the Dance Rep class in Traces of You

The finale of the evening, we came together and we shook hands, was the result of a 7-hour film shoot at a beautiful empty space in The Brooklyn Navy Yard. Dance Ensemble co-director’s Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Thomas-Train conceptualized and directed this project, which required dancers to learn choreography and improvisational scores on site and make bold choices in their performance.

The Ensemble in we came together and we shook hands
The Ensemble in we came together and we shook hands

Being a member of Dance Ensemble has always been about more than Dance. It’s been about community, collaboration, expression and creativity, but this year, it has also been about resilience. It’s been about how to show up and keep going and stay grounded when the world around us has been undergoing seismic shifts. Sometimes, it’s also been about not showing up, and not feeling grounded, but still, we kept going, week after week, month after the month, and all of the time we spent over Zoom, moving, discussing, processing and experimenting, have brought us here. In These Unprecedented Times….is about meeting this moment, inhabiting it, looking at it from a range of perspectives, and from the point of view of the body.

Click here to view our beautiful digital program created by Liz P. ‘22.

Black History is American History

The accomplishments, impact and influence of African Americans are at the foundation of many of our country’s pivotal historical moments. Though Black History Month provides a venue for us to highlight Black history, it’s crucial that we continue to learn about and celebrate it. Afterall, Black history is American history.

Below, read the perspectives of several Grace teachers on why it’s important to learn about and teach Black history year-round, and how they continue to integrate it into their courses:

Andrew Leonard, Performing Arts:
For the Vocal Music program, teaching Black History through music is essential. I make it a point to start off Beginning Vocals in the 9th grade every year explaining that pretty much all music we listen to today can be traced back to the influence of enslaved African-Americans. All American musical artforms- Jazz, Blues, Musical Theatre, Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, R&B, Country, etc. are direct descendants of Black culture and music. While this may seem like a hefty and overarching statement, it’s the truth. If you look only at the scales and rhythms used you will find this to be true. 

Therefore, it’s imperative that our Vocal Music students are not only aware of this- but they must learn it, honor it, and practice it from the beginning of their vocal studies at Grace. This plays a part in GraceNotes directly. I have made it a priority to make sure that there is a diverse body of repertoire that we learn and perform in GraceNotes. Some choral programs only focus on what some refer to as “the dead white guys”- aka classical music. While these composers are important to learn, if you are to only stop there, then you will miss the mark of being a truly well rounded and successful musician. Singing music from cultures from all over the world is a way in which GraceNotes practices antiracism daily. Also, allowing GraceNotes to dive deep into the world of spirituals, gospel music, and other forms of choral music that are traditional specifically to America, forces the students to gain a level of respect and understanding that would not otherwise be achieved. This is but only one way in which the Vocal Music program teaches and uplifts Black History all days of year, not just in February. 

Enkay Iguh, Literature
A. As a person who deals in stories—telling them, writing them, and teaching them—I am always aware of the power of narrative. It is how we pass on our cultural values, it helps us define ourselves, and ultimately the stories we hear, especially as children, shape our imagination and what that imagination creates. 

B.As a Black woman, I am also aware of the narratives about blackness, and especially Black woman-ness. These narratives are often dehumanizing, and to encounter them as a student was painful and confusing. What’s more, I wasn’t presented with the framework, the language to understand all that was messaged to me. Yet those messages shaped me.  

If A and B are true, then it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to equip my students with the tools to dissect narratives and contextualize them. What’s more, I must combat the harmful narratives and encourage positive identity formation, especially for my Black students. I teach Black history and life affirming Black stories year round in order to give my students what I never received in high school: tools with which to think critically about the stories we tell, especially regarding race. It is a daily practice and it guides my methodology. Black history is American history, and that’s a truth every student deserves to learn.

Mark Weinsier, History:
I teach the students with whom I’m fortunate enough to work at Grace that they each have a valuable voice that deserves to be affirmed and centered. And I stress to them that they can learn to navigate power structures and be active agents of the change they wish to see in the world.  But it was my own unlearning and relearning of Black History that helped crystallize these truths for me.

Several years ago, in a moment of clarity – and to my great mortification and horror — I realized that my discussions of Reconstruction entirely lacked Black voices and agency. I honestly can’t remember what prompted this revelation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” which landed with this white teacher in a predominantly white institution, for one, like a thunderclap and has become the single-most revisited reference point for me in both my teaching and ongoing learning. 

The more I read, the more I learned – and, in retrospect, wanted to apologize to all of the students who went through my classes as I began teaching them at Grace 19 years ago to whom I may have unconsciously done harm. Because I realized that, for longer than I care to remember, I had inadvertently taught Black History as I had myself learned it growing up in my hometown of Plantation, Florida (incorporated in 1953, which only makes its naming differently execrable): a trauma-focused distortion of the human experience in which people were acted upon rather than having the agency to dream and laugh and love and act to shape the world into the one they wished to see for themselves, their families, and their loved ones. But now I know better. I will never go back.

Now, as GCS students hope for the promise of vaccines while navigating these turbulent times on computers and microphones, they can say they have the genius of Onesimus, Dr. Mark Dean, and Dr. James West to thank. Katherine Johnson and Dr. Mae Jemison show them how to reach for – and get to — the stars. The Divine Nine and Victor Hugo Green lead by example in teaching them how to have mutual networks of support and oases of peace and dignity. The True Reformers and Maggie Walker demonstrate how to create structures out of whole cloth when unjustly denied access. Mary McLeod Bethune and the organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott lead by example in how to wield economic power to fight injustice. The Pullman Porters, The Chicago Defender, and the Freedom Riders teach lessons in how to use media to bring about change. While Madam C.J. Walker and Jay-Z show how to start a business with two dollars and a dream and to build generational wealth, Kehinde Wiley and filmmaker Stanley Nelson mentor them in challenging representation. Fred Hampton’s First Rainbow Coalition and the recent #TimesUp Movement demonstrate by example how to build coalitions. And the allyship of Theodore Sedgwick to Elizabeth Freeman in suing for her freedom, of Catholic sisters of the Order of St. Joseph to Black students in desegregating independent schools in Florida, and of Brad Lomax and the Black Panthers to disability rights activists that helped bring about the Americans with Disabilities Act encourage the eighth graders – and us all – to get into what late Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” Because, in bending that arc of the moral universe towards justice, each of us has a role to play.

My unlearning and relearning of Black History prompted me to reexamine my entire curriculum through other lenses. I am now constantly looking out for and incorporating other stories and voices that were hidden to me in my own education – and, consequently, that I have inadvertently hidden from my students, from gender-binary-shattering Public Universal Friend to agricultural pioneer Ah Bing to Muslim founding father Yarrow Mamout to Sikh railroad builders in Oregon.

As James Baldwin once wrote in his “A Talk to Teachers,” “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  I’m committed to continuing to learn and teach an ever broader range of histories that speaks to the full spectrum of the human experience and to the power of human agency. And I will continue to lift up and center Black voices – as well as the many others that were hidden to me growing up – every single month of the year.

From Chelsea Flores, Early Childhood:
In Early Childhood, one might call our “unofficial” overarching curriculum, “How to be The Best You.” This curriculum consists of daily lessons on how to listen to each other, ask questions when we’re uncertain, and stand up for those who need help. The opportunities for children to unconditionally celebrate both themselves and one another are numerous in Early Childhood. One such opportunity for students is through telling stories from both around the classroom and around the world.

In First Grade, the “Around the World” social studies curriculum serves as a medium to impart upon students how the similarities and differences of people, which are central elements of an enriching community, should be celebrated. First and foremost, we want our youngest learners to see themselves and their peers in a positive and affirming light. We want them to be able to pick up books and regularly see different aspects of themselves in the stories they read. We also want them to engage with experiences and identities that differ from their own, gaining new perspectives both in the classroom and their surrounding environment. We call these mirrors and windows.

One of our biggest goals is to encourage students to challenge stereotypes and misinformation, right from the start. If we are truly to love and understand ourselves and our neighbors, then we must first learn to listen and appreciate one another. This is why listening to and learning from Black voices and experiences is not just important in February, but all year-round. In many ways, de-centering the white narrative and spotlighting Black history is an opportunity to reflect, learn, appreciate, and uplift our communities to include the multiple, often untold stories. After all, Black history is world history.

From Toby Nathan, History
We teach and learn Black histories at Grace for the same reasons that Dr. Carter Woodson built the field of Black studies a century ago: because Black histories are an affirmation of Black life and identity, and the process of illuminating, teaching, and learning Black histories is a necessary and joyful act that is as much about our present as it is about the past.  

In conceiving of “Negro History Week,” Woodson identified a need to focus and fix our attention on the histories of Black people that had been, to employ the framing of Haitian scholar Michel-Rolphe Trouillot, “silenced” by generations of white historians. Indeed, Woodson feared that Black Americans had been rendered a people with “no history…no worthwhile traditions,” and that liberation would be found in unsilencing, illuminating, and amplifying Black histories.  

His aim was never to silo Black history to a week or a month; quite the opposite. Woodson’s work, and the work of generations of scholars since, was to center Black histories. In fact, Professor LaGarrett King points out that Carter Woodson intended “Negro History Week” to celebrate a year of learning Black histories. Woodson and his contemporaries in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance affirmed that scholarship and study were vital components of what Alain Locke called a “spiritual emancipation” for Black Americans. 

These ideas are at the forefront of my mind because students in my course, “African American History since 1920,” are currently working to understand the contours of the “New Negro Movement,” and many are also enrolled in Kallan Wood’s “The Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy” course in the literature department. Ms. Wood and I continue to work collaboratively on these courses, so that students can engage with Black stories and Black life across disciplines and without the limitations of any one method.  

Black histories are foundational to the 10th grade “History of the Americas” course, which I teach along with my colleagues, Jaliz Albanese and Jason McDonald. History of the Americas is organized around a decolonial framework, one that explores the interconnected histories of North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, and does so by deliberately centering the perspectives of African-descended and Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Our teaching and learning of Black histories is, and must be, diasporic in scope, both hemispheric and trans-Atlantic, and the “Americas” curriculum for History and Literature enables students to see African diasporic continuities fragmented by colonialism, and bring these to the present. In this course, we work to teach Black histories as histories of liberation and self-determination, Black histories that are joyful, powerful, and complex. 

Our work over the years to strengthen our teaching of Black histories at Grace has yielded significant and ongoing growth in our courses and pedagogy, but has been marked  by mistakes and missteps, including my own, that must be acknowledged. As a white teacher of Black histories, I have too often failed to recognize the ways that my identity and positionality – my relationship to these histories – were making it easy for me not to see the ways in which Black students and other students of color were experiencing materials we were reading or activities in the classroom. As a teacher, my work calls me to acknowledge these failures and to deliberately be a better educator and historian, to center and care for them in all aspects of my teaching life.  Departmentally, we continue to review and strengthen the skills we need to effectively teach Black histories and the histories of other historically marginalized people, because we know that our teaching must overturn and dismantle the power dynamics of the past.  

We learn and teach Black histories both because these stories are central to our shared history, and because Black histories are their own vital stories, which themselves demand our attention and scholarship as students and faculty.  

To adapt Arturo Schomburg’s framing of Black history, we must now all remake our past in order to make our future. We must teach Black histories all year, every year, because history is identity. It tells us who we are, and also shapes who we want to be. Bringing about a just future requires us to do justice to our past.  

Selected Texts for African American History Since 1920 (so far):

Selected Texts for History of the Americas 

Kallan K. Wood, Literature:
Black History Month, as Dr. Nathan has shared, was never about confinement. Black History Month and Black history is about amplifying, elevating and expanding, not restricting and contorting into small spaces. The idea of amplifying, expanding and working to take up space is at the heart of each literature course I teach.

This semester in Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy, a literature course for 11th and 12th grade students, I have focused on the idea of expansion and amplification of the individual voice, the individual writer and the individual character. Black Studies (no matter what the academic discipline), Black people and Black experiences are not a monolith, and much of what we do has to be to constantly push against that impulse. 

In the first half of the course we have studied an array of poets from a collection called Caroling Dusk, edited by Countee Cullen in 1927. In the foreword Cullen underscores this tension between the compulsion to see Black writers and Black Americans as one singular experience and the urgency to not erase the individual and their contributions. Cullen writes,  

“I have called this collection an anthology of verse by Negro poets rather than an anthology of Negro verse, since this latter designation would be more confusing than accutate. Negro poetry, it seems to me, in the sense that we speak of Russian, French, or Chinese poetry, must emanate from some country other than this in some language other than our own. Moreover, the attempt to corral the outbursts of the ebony muse into some definite mold to which all poetry by Negroes will conform seems altogether futile and aside from the facts.”

Towards the end of the foreword Cullen notes,

“The poet writes out of his experience, whether it be personal or vicarious, and as these experiences differ among other poets, so do they differ among Negro poets; for the double obligation of being both Negro and American is not so unified as we are often led to believe. A survey of work of Negro poets will show that the individual diversifying ego transcends the synthesizing hue.”

This text is not only a prolific anthology, it is also an exquisite primary source document. Cullen asked each poet to submit a short biography with their poems. Reading these biographies alongside each poet’s work allows us to further emphasize individuality and make thematic connections that consider and contend with racialized experiences and expression, but are not exclusively about racialized experiences and expressions. Some of the themes we have been exploring within the Harlem Renaissance and will continue to explore into the second half of the semester (our “legacy” bit) are dreams, self-actualization, love, power, elitism, womanhood, manhood, affirmation of humanity and Alain Locke’s notion of “spiritual empaciation”. 

Texts for Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy:

The Secret to a Triumphant Winter Concert? Harmonious Collaboration.

by Performing Arts teachers Joseph Ancowitz, Yvonne Hicks, Nick Kadajski, Andrew Leonard, Jenny Pommiss, and Simon Thomas-Train

The winter concert always has some element of collaboration in it during a normal year. That was especially true in the year of 2020. The concert came together because of the contributions of the students and arts teachers working together like no other year. 

The jazz bands worked on music remotely and in person. The students in the jazz groups often just learned the technical parts of the music in person without making any sounds on their instruments. While they were at home they would zoom in to class and individually play back what they had learned. They recorded their parts into an online recording program called Soundtrap. Their parts were then downloaded and mixed using Logic. Each music teacher followed a similar method for creating their groups portion of the concert. It was a time consuming process, but well worth the effort. 

As the start of this school year approached, figuring out how the strings classes would be able to function effectively, what with some students being fully remote, and others attending classes on an alternating in-person/remote basis, became increasingly important. Technology would have to be heavily used, and that the glories of playing chamber music would likely just become “sterile” music making. Even with music being a “universal language”, one that draws people together, and connects persons of all types, we were tentatively embarking on a new and unfamiliar “adventure”.

Indeed as school opened, all of us, teachers and students alike, found ourselves feeling isolated in our new “environment”! We were now mostly on Zoom, unable to communicate musically in the chamber music ensemble settings we were accustomed to. And yet, as school progressed, we all learned new ways to work together, and to achieve good musical results. Our work took on a new form: we found ways to breathe together, to listen more intently, to take pride in our accomplishments — no matter how small, to scale new heights, to work harder than ever to attain our goals, and not to give in to the restrictive nature of working in a pandemic! We stopped taking “just playing our instruments” for granted! Every little detail now meant something special.

GraceNotes, like the other music ensembles, also had a different and much more challenging semester than usual. Instead of the ensemble being in LL6 all together singing in harmony, we had to create music while being isolated. This forced each singer to work on themselves individually as artists — really focusing on what they bring to the table. The hardest part for this was to keep the feeling of connection and love that GraceNotes has created over the course of the last few years. Our weekly zoom rehearsals aimed to keep this spirit of connection alive and I believe it is apparent in the outcome of the videos that we were able to pull this off. 

The Grace Dance Ensemble has continued to meet over Zoom to dance together. As individuals and an ensemble, we have explored the full range of possibilities available to us as a community of dancers and choreographers. Ensemble co-directors, Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Simon-Train jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with the vocal and instrumental ensembles once again. For the evening’s finale, Ms. Pommiss, Mr. Leonard and Mr. K decided early in the semester that they wanted to collaborate on a piece that would be an homage to New York City. What better song than “New York, New York”? For “An Ode to New York”, Dance Ensemble members learned choreography in their living rooms that was then brought outside onto city streets, and into parks, and backyards. This footage was then edited together with that of Jazz Ensemble and Gracenotes, along with the mastered tracks. 

Another main aspect of collaboration for this concert was the Protest Anthem Project, which was created by the Dance Ensemble and GraceNotes. This project began at the beginning of the school year, and was designed to give students the opportunity to make sense of what is going on in our world, and to find alternative, but no less powerful, ways of communicating, most notably through movement and song. Many of our Dance Ensemble and Gracenotes students use the arts as a vehicle for change, and as a place to be both seen and heard by the community. This is in part because these students stand on the shoulders of alumni, who came before them and paved the way by bridging activism and the performing arts.

During Dance Ensemble’s late August preseason, Dance Ensemble co-directors Ms. Pommiss and Mr. Thomas-Train invited Soleil Andrews ‘19, Stephanie Cox ‘19, Georgia Ossorguine ‘18 and Camille Segre-Lawrence ‘18 into the virtual studio. They zoomed in from dorm rooms and off-campus apartments to discuss their inspiration and teach excerpts of their pieces. From there, dancers and singers were placed into artistic teams to decide on issues that were important to them, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement, racial violence and police brutality, climate change and the environment. The resulting videos represent a collaboration where we navigated the realities of working over Zoom. GraceNotes used inspiration from recent and historical protest movements to create original songs that are designed to motivate, inspire, and lift up. Using these original songs, Dance Ensemble members created parallel works of dance as their own acts of protest. Despite the distance we are all facing, this project gave us all the opportunity to connect, process and heal. 

Despite its new format, the triumphant nature of the winter show remained unchanged, showcasing and celebrating a semester of hard work, dedication, and beautiful music.

You can view each performance below:

Learning About Native American Traditions through Native American Movement

By Laurel Lesio, Dance Teacher

Around the world, both children and adults have been dancing and playing with hoops for thousands of years*. For over 20 years, third graders at Grace have learned about hoop dancing in a Native American form. This exciting, vigorous and meaningful style of dance inspires creativity and challenges both the body and the mind to work at their best. And most of all, it’s fun!

I first learned about Native American hoop dancing when I attended a festival in upstate New York in the 1990’s. There, I met Mr. Cliff Matias (Kichwa/Taino). I saw his hoop dance performance, and I learned about the Redhawk Arts Council, an arts and cultural organization he helped create in Brooklyn. That very same year, I invited Mr. Matias to visit Grace Church School to teach us about indigenous cultures and dance forms. He has worked with the third grade ever since, teaching technique, form, and the varied meanings behind hoop dancing. When the students have mastered his dance sequence, I guide them into choreographing a hoop dance sequence of their own. Because the third grade social studies curriculum includes the study of First Nations people, particularly those of the Northeast region, there is true cross-curricular study for every third grader.

This school year, the hoop dancing curriculum continued as usual as Mr. Matias visited each third grade classroom virtually at the end of October. He was joined by one of his fellow dancers; they sang and danced, taught us about the origins of the hoop dance, and then walked us through some really cool moves! The event highlighted how rhythmic expression is universal. In all of its forms, dance is exciting to both watch and do. The human body responds automatically when our brains are stimulated by the combination of rhythm, emotion, and intellect.

Mr. Matias was generous enough to answer a few questions concerning education and of course, hoop dancing. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Ms. Lesio: I know that you regularly bring your educational dance programs to schools like ours where there is a very small, if any, number of native students. Very often, your program is the first exposure these young children have to indigenous art forms. How then, do you see your role as an educator?

Mr. Matias: It is an important part of breaking the stereotypes that students may have of Native traditions.

Ms. Lesio: I know that in addition to being an expert hoop dancer, you sing and play both the drum and flute. I believe that you are also a visual artist. It seems to me that you have specifically chosen to employ the arts to educate children. Can you say more about this choice? Are the arts integral to you and your cultural heritage? And when learning about indigenous cultures, what advantage might the arts have over other mediums such as written texts?

Mr. Matias: I feel the arts allow students to engage in a very different way than just textbooks. They allow students to create a physical, emotional and mental connection to the traditions they are learning about.

Ms. Lesio: I have heard you say that the dance hoop can represent the “circle of life” and when throwing the hoop and expecting its return, you have used a metaphor about effort. Can you please tell us a little bit about those two things and leave us with a way to connect hoop dancing to our daily lives?

Mr. Matias: It is the understanding that what we do in our lives returns to us. Working hard at a specific subject or task will often bring about positive results, but if you do not apply yourself to a task, craft or discipline, you cannot be upset if you do not get the results you were hoping for.


*Notably, the popular American game commonly known as “hula hooping” uses a large plastic hoop. It is not a part of the traditional and often sacred Hula dancing of the indigenous people of Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands.

Becoming Strong Visual Storytellers

By Collin Todd, Visual Arts Teacher

As students adapt to the ever-changing world around them, the way they interact with information both educational and social is increasingly becoming more visual. It is important for students to have the tools and conceptual foundations for becoming strong visual storytellers. This can take the form of photographs and videos they share with their peers and family as well as visual reports, documentaries, and presentations as part of their education. My Open Grace Summer course offerings were geared to empower the students as storytellers by helping them gain the technical ability to be a successful visual storyteller in photography and video as well as understand the conceptual meanings behind what makes films engaging and important to our culture. 

In our Introduction to Photoshop class, we explored the foundational tools and concepts of digitally manipulating photographs, allowing students creatively express themselves beyond the idea of the snapshot. Students produced a range of photo collages and illustrations. 

Our Advanced Photoshop course centered around the idea of expanding illustration and design possibilities in the software while utilizing photographs as a starting point. The students produced several logos and designs. 

The Introduction to Final Cut Pro class gave students hands-on experience in creating a music video as they learned the ins and outs of the video editing software. 

Finally, the Introduction to Adobe Premiere class provided the students with a platform to create their own PSAs about life during a pandemic. 

You can view some of the students’ Photoshop work here and their video work here!

Video password is ” opengrace2020 “

Dances for Very Small Spaces

By Jenny Pommiss, Dance

When Grace was forced to shut its doors, the advanced, senior-only Dance Repertory Class began a project I called, “Dances for Very Small Spaces.” The project was born out of quarantine and the desire, in fact, the need, to keep moving. It was inspired by “52 Portraits” (2016), which was a digital collaboration between British choreographer Jonathan Burrows, composer Matteo Fargion, and video maker Hugo Glendinning. In class, students were asked to look at their homes, the places where they may have lived all their lives, in a completely new way. They scouted locations for a dance that would not only use their bedroom or living room as a backdrop, but as a dance partner. Students were encouraged to have the location drive their choreographic explorations. They were then asked to film themselves from a variety of different perspectives, add music, and edit that footage together. At the same time, the students were asked to take time to reflect on what Dance has meant to them at Grace, how the pandemic has affected them, and how it may continue to affect Dance as a discipline moving forward. At the end, I whittled their final projects down to a minute each and layered their interviews over their chosen sound so that they could be strung together. The result was a collection of deeply personal movement portraits that represented four years of growth in the Dance Program at Grace. 

Check our Website in the coming days to see the students’ full final projects. In the meantime, please hear their voices and watch their dancing in a beautiful compilation. You can watch Dancing With Big Hearts in Small Spaces: Senior Edition, using the password: Seniors.

This project then became a component of a larger, full Ensemble piece called “Dancing with Big Hearts in Small Spaces.” This was a digital reimagining of the Ensemble’s canceled live performance, which was set to go up on April 17 and 18 in Tuttle Hall. As Devon M. ‘20 says in the piece, “Honestly, when I first heard that schools were going to be shut down, I did not think that Dance was going to continue”. To his surprise, the Ensemble continued to meet twice weekly to move together and explore what it means to dance alone and in place. Visiting teacher Simon Thomas-Train and I collaborated on the concept and direction. Josie M. ‘22 offers, “We have kept going….we are finding other ways to keep moving…and to keep the spirit of dance and the amazing gift of dance alive.” Each week, after a physical warm-up, students were given prompts, such as “make a dance in a doorway” or “use today’s headlines as an inspiration for a dance”. They were then asked to film themselves using a variety of different camera angles. The dancers also interviewed themselves, which gave their virtual audience the opportunity to delve deeper into the dancers’ creative process. You can view the full performance here, using the password: Bighearts.

For the virtual finale, I was inspired by the choreography and editing techniques used in a music video by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down that was produced in the early days of the quarantine and choreographed specifically for Zoom. I loved how it utilized the video medium to make dancers appear connected in new and exciting ways. You can view the Finale here, using the password: Finale.

Senior Directors Compelled to Take Films in New Direction

Film and Media Majors spent this year preparing to shoot their final film over spring break. After months of planning, and with spring break about to begin, Seniors Sasha Q., Otto L., Lucinda L. and Charlotte G. found their planned shoot and production completely shut down. Recognizing the less-than-favorable hand his students had been dealt, photography and film teacher Mr. Todd gave them the option of adapting their existing scripts or creating new films. Without exception, the students accepted the challenge of crafting entirely new films before graduation, even though they had already been working on their final projects for months. 

As the students began writing their new scripts, Mr. Todd shifted the focus of his class to delve deeper into the study of the avant-garde films and the pioneers of alternative cinema. The curriculum clearly inspired his pupils, whose films, either by design or necessity (or, more likely, a bit of both), began moving in a more surrealist direction, exploring the streets of New York City; a lofty apartment; even a kitchen sink. 

The uncharted territory lent itself to a somewhat surprising result. Said Mr. Todd, “While the students did not have the chance to experience building a production crew and filming with all the resources Grace has to offer, they were given the conceptual freedom to explore improvisation and a taste of auteurship on a level they probably wouldn’t have had prior to this crisis.”

View all films here using password “films2020.”

Dancing Across the Globe

By Pam Vlach, Dance Specialist, Lower & Middle School; Director, Middle School Dance Ensemble

The past few weeks, the middle school dance ensemble has been working with Aphiwe Mpahleni, who’s zooming in from Cape Town, South Africa to share the history and technique of Gumboot. The first week of her residency, the students learned about the emergence of Gumboot in the gold mines of South Africa as a tool for communication and protest in poor working conditions. The racial inequities in South Africa as related to the origins of Gumboot were particularly poignant for students. The second week, the seventh and eighth graders practiced the technique of Gumboot and learned a combination that we’ll likely incorporate into the middle school dance concert next spring.

In planning this unit, Aphiwe and I met several times to discuss content and strategy for online teaching because it was important to address both the possibility of unreliable technology and specifics of pedagogy that are culturally informed. We wanted to create a process where the middle schoolers could learn successfully while experiencing the cultural intricacies of Gumboot in an authentic way. Although there are certainly challenges in teaching dance remotely, it’s also an excellent opportunity to think outside the box and make the world a little smaller for the kids. 

Technologically, nothing is perfect. During one class, my speaker stopped working and I didn’t realize it. There were a few minutes of Aphiwe communicating with the kids and I couldn’t hear any of them (but thought the problem was on their end). When I realized what had happened, I was incredibly embarrassed and apologized, and the kids laughed, then we continued on with class. I share this because in teaching remotely, connecting with the students has sometimes meant showing some vulnerability in learning these new online tools and platforms. We’re all in it together, and we’re learning as we go. 

I Got You (I Feel Good)

Social distancing hasn’t stopped the GCS Jazz Ensemble from (digitally) jamming together. In an effort to get everyone’s week off to a bright start, the high school troupe put together a spirited cover of James Brown’s iconic song, “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, which Mr. Kadajski, High School Instrumental Music Teacher, sent to all students, faculty and staff.

Mr. Kadajski described for us the students’ experience of creating this piece, as well as his process for putting it all together:

We’ve been having zoom classes in a way that is similar to how we have in-person classes during school.  We start by tuning, followed by a warm-up on a scale and rhythm. Usually I play my sax while the students play along with me, but they are muted. I then put on the backing track to a piece we’re working on and we play through that together, again while they’re muted. We go into breakout rooms in zoom, and I ask each section to work on a particular set of measures with section leaders leading the sectional. I hop into each breakout room and help each group.

In terms of the video, I had students send me an audio take of them playing their part along to a backing track using headphones. I then imported and mixed their audio files together using Logic Pro X. I then had them send me a video take of them playing along to the backing track. I used Final Cut Pro to compile all the videos and added the mixed audio from Logic into the compilation. That was the process in a nutshell.