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By Lisa Traiger
Mentoring for college-age dancers
Ashley Thorndike (far left) with both college and middle school students.
Photo by Katherine Anderson, Courtesy NNDMP.
When Hannah Fischer graduated two years ago from Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, she was nervous about her next step. She had a teaching and performing job with Leverage Dance Theater in St. Louis, but was unsure about what her day-to-day work would actually entail.
She was lucky; help came in an unusual form.
Before she took off for Missouri, Fischer spent a week at Appalachian State University to take part in the Now & Next Dance Mentoring Project. Founded in 2010 by Ashley Thorndike, Now & Next unites female college-aged dancers, middle school girls (ages 10 to 14), and working choreographers. For a week, the tweens are led by college students, who in turn experience real-world teaching scenarios—backed by the professionals. Fischer was able to hone some teaching, programming, and leadership skills while also getting the chance to ask the pros on staff about practical issues, like health insurance and fundraising.
“I call it a nested model,” says Thorndike, Now & Next’s executive director, who also has a private yoga and Pilates practice in Washington, DC. In the mornings, the 15 to 20 college students—mentored by dance professors and arts administrators—take somatics, dance, and choreography classes with the professional artists. They also share ideas to improve their own teaching and prepare lessons for the middle schoolers. When the kids arrive each day after lunch, the undergrads are ready to take the lead in movement classes, improvisation workshops, and arts-and-craft sessions.
Thorndike, who holds a Ph.D. in dance studies from Ohio State University, developed Now & Next’s curriculum while overseeing an educational program at the University of Virginia that paired college women with at-risk adolescents—without the dance component. But from her own experiences working with modern choreographers (in New York City, Chicago, and Charlottesville), Thorndike knew that dance could be the key to providing adolescent girls with healthy and creative choices.
Each day at Now & Next is framed by one of five themes: action, support, curiosity, challenge, or resilience. During the day that focuses on curiosity, for instance, college students lead a movement class and a body-mapping exercise. The middle-schoolers create self-portraits, tracing their body surfaces on oversized paper. “They’re learning all the ways they can move, talking about joint actions and articulations,” Thorndike says.
Now & Next doesn’t have a single location; universities like Appalachian State offer to host the program. Marianne Adams, chair of Appalachian’s theater and dance division, finds Now & Next a good fit for her department. “I see it as mentoring that comes full circle,” she says. “The students are at various places in their development, and so are the faculty members.” Adams also says it helps build her students’ confidence for life after college. “They get an opportunity to realize that they do know a lot, because of their role as mentor/teacher with the middle-school girls,” she says.
Thorndike hopes to expand Now & Next a little each year. Appalachian State will host the program again this June, and in 2014, and Thorndike has plans for additional locations. Her challenge, however, is to keep the student-to-mentor ratio as close to one-to-one as possible. “Because the program is so intense, the students are really receptive to feedback,” she says. “They are so engaged in wanting to make deeper connections for the middle-schoolers each day.”
Fischer, now 25, has taken her Now & Next experience and run with it. Today, she’s the assistant director of Leverage Dance Theater, where she recently helped launch an outreach program for underserved youth, incarcerated teens, and victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. She is now developing more of the program’s curriculum on her own. How did Now & Next help? “The building blocks that it put in place for me are invaluable.”
Lisa Traiger writes on the performing arts from Rockville, MD.