Arts Education Leads the Way

As a student, teacher, and parent, I have long valued the traditional forms of education. If students studied what I considered the core subjects of education – English, history, mathematics, and science – that seemed the most beneficial and I expected those studies would have the greatest impact on a person’s professional and personal life. I might have been wrong.

Now, I am just as certain that studying the arts (in all forms) will not only enhance your view and appreciation for the world, but it will probably give you more insight and a more profound sense of our shared humanity, and in the end, that may be just as important as the lessons learned in calculus or Shakespeare.

The following article was first published in Thornton Academy’s alumni magazine, PostScripts, and the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier.


SACO – by Patricia Erikson, Director of Communications, Thornton Academy.

If you’ve heard that Thornton Academy has become an epicenter for dance education in Maine, you might like to know that Emma Arenstam Campbell ’04 is behind the curtain.

The Thornton Academy and Bates (Class of ’08) grad returned to campus in 2011 and has turned the dance program into a powerhouse that performs three dance concerts per year, integrates dance into both theatrical and orchestral performances, and sends students to out-of-state conventions.

Accounting for Dance I, II, and III, and the Dance Company, Emma involves over 150 students in dance at Thornton. Reflecting on the change in the program, Emma said, “At this point, I have had students studying four years of foundational technique with me; this makes a big difference in their choreography and performance skills.

Those students become role models for the more novice students. In turn, this creates an environment in the program where everyone is consistently striving to improve.”

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With her signature generosity and team-oriented spirit, Emma isn’t stopping at building an amazing Thornton dance program, she’s collaborating with other studios, dance educators, and organizations to build a more extensive and cohesive dance education community across Maine.

“Public school offerings in dance in Maine are very sparse, which is unfortunate. As an advocate, I strive to show the importance of what we are doing through the positive impact dance has had on my students’ lives. I will basically do anything that I can to support organizations like the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Alliance for Arts Education, as well as more local groups that will support arts education in our state. I have worked as a teacher leader for the Maine Arts Commission and am currently involved in their census project. I’m also part of the Arts Are Basic Coalition for the Maine Alliance for Arts Education and will work with students and teachers on their advocacy day at the Capitol in late March.”

When asked what she’s hoping her advocacy will accomplish, Emma quickly points to how important dance is to people and how she wants to spread the benefits of dance statewide to youth.

“Dance is a wonderful art form which incorporates critical thinking, teamwork, athleticism, and aesthetics. I just want to help others realize how important dance is for kids. Arts education is so critical in the development of well rounded, compassionate, and vested adults. I don’t want to make an army of dancers. I want students to take dance so that they will appreciate art for the rest of their lives. Along the journey, they will develop skills that are so critical to their success as adults in both school and work environments.”

One strategy for opening up more dance opportunity in schools statewide is to support dance teachers. With the collaboration of other K-12, higher education, and private studio teachers, Emma is leading the creation of a Maine Dance Education Organization, which will support the needs of dance educators statewide.

“We created a Fall Showcase in November for dancers from different organizations. This past year, the showcase raised $2,650; we donated the money to the Maine Arts Commission for a grant in dance education. I really hope to be able to do more things like this in the future. I think it is so important to help others when possible. Currently, there are professional organizations for music, theater, and visual art but none for dance. If we can help other dance educators with resources that they need to provide quality instruction, then that is wonderful.”

Meanwhile, on campus, as the magazine goes to press, Emma is working diligently with a cast of more than 50 students who will perform in the TA Players’ spring musical, West Side Story.

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When speaking about the recent production of Leonard Bernstein’s musical, David Hanright, Thornton’s Theater program director said, “Some high schools wouldn’t touch this musical because it’s so difficult. Emma has a vision and it’s very demanding. The dancing is extensive.”

Emma explained the challenge: the cast of West Side Story dancers is predominantly men. “This performance requires 10-20 men who are proficient in dance. We have chosen not to have women cast as men. Of our male dancers, only a handful of them have taken dance with me before. But they are trying so hard and being so responsive. They’re doing great.”

The original West Side Story was choreographed by Jerome Robbins who had a background as a ballet dancer and theater actor. Emma describes Robbins’ style as explosive, technical, and very masculine.

“His choreography is based on ballet dance vocabulary, while emulating gang fighting. He’s taking street violence and turning it into dance. The result is a complicated dialogue between two gangs.”

A lot of choreographic work is expected of dance teachers; this is true for the current production. Emma has used Robbins’ choreography as inspiration and the audience will recognize signature movements like finger snapping and pencil jumps. But the rest must be choreographed from scratch.

“We try things with our cast, most of whom don’t have a dance background, at least in the case of the guys. Then you have to find what works within their abilities,” she said.

The result? Essentially a new choreography for each production.

“I really like choreography because I like the storytelling process.”

David Arenstam

About David Arenstam

Originally from away, but here to stay - Maine is my home and I love writing stories about the people and places from my end of the state. I am a teacher and writer and my first novel, "Homecoming: A Soldier's Story of Loyalty, Courage, and Redemption" is available now at www.BrysonTaylorPublishing.com