‘Let’s Dance!’ returns to the College

Shane Stackpole

    Local elementary school students participate in the “Let’s Dance” program. (Photo courtesy of Brad Wakoff.)

This semester, “Let’s Dance!,” a program in which dance department faculty and students teach ballet at Brayton Elementary School and Pine Cobble School, has gotten back on its feet after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the program to shut down in March 2020. Led by Artist-in-Residence in Dance Janine Parker and Outreach Manager of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance Randal Fippinger, the program has returned to fully in-person instruction and expanded to involve more elementary schools from the surrounding community.

The “Let’s Dance!” program began in 2019 when Fippingerasked Parker and fellow dance faculty if they were interested in leading dance workshops in local schools. Parker, however, said she had been interested in spearheading such a project long before 2019. During her time as an instructor at the Boston Ballet School, Parker took part in its City-dance program, where she and other professional instructors taught classes to third graders in local Boston public schools who may not have otherwise had access to ballet classes. When Fippinger approached her years later at the College, Parker seized the opportunity to create a smaller-scale version of the program for the Williamstown community.

As in the current format, previous “Let’s Dance!” classes began with warmups that focused on ballet technique, then transitioned to working on choreography that ultimately culminated in a final performance at the College, to which parents, teachers, and fellow classmates were invited.

After a yearlong hiatus, Parker slowly began reviving the program in the spring of 2021, beginning with fully virtual classes and subsequently moving to a hybrid model of instruction. This semester, “Let’s Dance!” has finally returned to its pre-pandemic state, with classes fully in person at the College’s dance studios and in spaces at the participating schools.

“Let’s Dance!” has expanded this semester, with classes being taught to students from Brayton Elementary in North Adams – which has participated in the program since its start – and Pine Cobble School in Williamstown – which is participating in the program for the first time this semester. In addition, classes are now offered for the first time this semester to local students who live in Williamstown but do not attend Pine Cobble School. Classes are now offered on both Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons to compensate for the increased number of students.

Student dancers from the College have historically participated in the program, with four outreach assistants hired in any given semester. This has helped promote Parker’s goal to make “Let’s Dance!” a program from which her own dance students can benefit and learn. “I wanted to make [“Let’s Dance!”] educational for interested Williams students, as a pedagogical kind of exploration for them, whether or not they had assisted teaching before or maybe someday might be interested in assistant teaching,” Parker said.

Every week, Kiara White ’26, Ella Askew ’26, Lola Casenave Barranguet ’25, and Chloe Hysore ’23 assist Parker in planning and teaching classes.

However, this increase has also come with some challenges. Classes for Pine Cobble students are taught in their school cafeteria, while classes for Brayton and local Williamstown students who do not attend Pine Cobble are taught in one of the professional dance studios at the College. According to Parker, having access to barres, proper Marley flooring for dance, and full-length mirrors in a dance studio makes teaching ballet to young students significantly easier than in a cafeteria with hard, slippery floors and a lack of proper equipment.

“It’s also really important for children to be able to see themselves in a college setting for their future to think that they belong in a place like this,” Parker added. Ideally, she said, buses would take students across both districts to the College for classes each week. However, given transportation complications, Parker and her assistants have had to work around the difficulties of dancing in the Pine Cobble cafeteria, adjusting their teaching techniques to fit the unconventional space and ensure that classes are safe.

Despite these challenges, Parker and the outreach assistants expressed that expanding “Let’s Dance!” has been worthwhile. For outreach assistant White, the increased accessibility of ballet classes for local students outweighs any challenges that have come with expanding the program, she said. The ballet classes offered through “Let’s Dance!” are entirely free, do not require formal dance attire, and seek to foster a more casual atmosphere. “This gives their parents and [the students] an opportunity to get acquainted with this genre [of dance] that normally they might have to go a little bit out of their way to access,” White said.

To Parker, expanding “Let’s Dance!” is important because of the impact that dance can have on the personal development and growth of young students. “Learning that one’s own body can be empowered, can be strong, can be expressive, working together with others, [and] being kind to others are all things that we hope to pass on to our students,” Parker said. “I think art can change a life. It’s something that is creative and empowering; it opens up their mind, and it opens up their world.”