Making an Entrance: Elaine Gardner's Inclusive Approach to Dance at Nichols School

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Elaine Gardner's Upper School students pile into a vintage gym turned dance studio with their snow-caked boots, drop their coats, scarves, hats and gloves, put out the barres, and get down to serious dance business. "Anyone sore from yesterday?" Gardner asks the group of 15-18 year olds, who have just returned from a long winter break. Today, she eases the dancers back into shape with an eclectic technique class that combines a slow ballet barre, yoga stretching, and expansive across the floor sequences. She's sensitive to the fact that it's only day two of the semester; still she sets a "no slackers need apply" tone right from the get go.

Nichols School is a prestigious prep school in Buffalo, NY, for grades 5-12. Despite its academic focus, the arts have always been a priority. Founded in 1892, the school inherited a dance program when it went coed with Nottingham Academy in 1973. Students are exposed to dance as early as 5th grade and all Upper School students are required to take eight weeks of dance training.

Gardner, 51, has been on faculty since 1986--she's only the third dance teacher in the program's 43-year history. Her students include many who are serious about dance and just as many who will never set foot in a dance studio after graduation. An accomplished dancer and choreographer herself, Gardner takes seriously her charge to make the experience worthwhile for both groups. She's convinced that dance provides an ideal entry into a larger creative arena.

The petite but muscular brunette with wisps of gray derived her no-nonsense attitude from her own background as a dancer. She began her training at 4 with highland dancing in her native Scotland. But it was an after-school program, much like the one she now runs, where her life's path became clear.

After two years at Arizona State University, where she took every technique class she could, Gardner went to Los Angeles to apprentice with Bella Lewitzky (She eventually completed her degree at Empire College in New York.) She's performed in works by Margo Sappington, Bill Evans, Charles Weidman, Donald Byrd, Kei Takei, and Doris Humphrey. In 1980, she founded Pick of the Crop Dance in Los Angeles, and then in 1982 relocated the company to Buffalo. She began teaching early in her career, both to support herself and to explore more fully all that she was learning.

"I was blessed with a good eye and an ability to cull the best from all my mentors. I put myself in rigorous domains where my teachers were strongly principled people," she says. "I was attracted to Lewitzky and Byrd's ability to push anatomical boundaries." Additional training with Mia Slavenska and Maggie Black influenced her approach to shaping a ballet class for modern and jazz dancers.

TWO-TRACK APPROACH TO DANCE

There are two ways Nichols' Upper School students can approach dance: They can fulfill their physical education requirement by joining the after-school Ensemble that Gardner runs much like a dance company; and they can enroll for elective courses in a creative track that focuses on developing dance appreciation and history and placing dance into the larger framework of creative expression. (See Nichols' Creative Arts Curriculum, page 8.)

Students often take both tracks simultaneously. "The dance students who [also] take the creativity track end up being better choreographers and performers," she says. "They are simply exposed to more. I'm trying to expand the definition of what dance can be."

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The Ensemble is open to students, without regard to previous training, who want to dance every day. They meet every day for technique class and to choreograph and rehearse for performances. Participation fulfills the physical education requirement and students are free to come and go semester by semester.

"It's not unusual for students to play field hockey in the fall and join the Ensemble in the winter months, which is an especially popular time for dance," Gardner states. …