Colleen Callahan-Russell Bringing Dance to Diverse Schools and Communities

Callahan-Russell Receives the Inspiration Award: A Special Citation from Dance/USA

By Linda Shapiro

In 1984, Colleen Callahan-Russell was teaching dance at North High School one of the Twin Cities’ most racially diverse schools. She’d attended several basketball games and loved the players’ moves. So she asked the team, state champs in basketball that year, if she could choreograph a game for them. The players were game, especially when she began rehearsals by working with the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme song. By the time the piece reached the stage of the Walker Art Center as part of a Choreographers’ Evening, Colleen had switched the music to Vivaldi. Her dancer/athletes were unfazed and got a standing ovation.

Marc Wanvig, courtesy Colleen Callahan-Russell

Marc Wanvig, courtesy Colleen Callahan-Russell

That’s just one example of the miracles this master teacher has wrought in her 31 years of bringing dance to high school students, first at North, later at Southwest High in Minneapolis. Her dance education at Brigham Young University taught her how to improvise, a strategy she continues to use in the classroom to spark her students’ creativity, and her own spontaneity.

“You constantly have to be ready to go to plan B — and to become comfortable in the gray areas,” says Callahan-Russell. “My philosophy has always been that I have to learn on my feet, and that we’ll all learn together. I have some information, they have some. We have to be willing to travel the road together.”

The road she has traveled so successfully is one that forged on her own, noting that her education didn’t fully prepare her for the diversity of the public school classroom. “I did not learn anything about working with artists and students of color,” she says. Many of her students couldn’t relate to the modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. So when she began as a new teacher at North, she ferreted out a documentary about Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem. “When I showed it to my students, they physically got more vertical.”

She began bringing in local dance artists to work with her students, including artists of color, and created her own curriculum, writing in the vernacular her students could understand. As Kenna Cottman, a former student who is now a prominent dancer, choreographer, and dance educator says, “She exposed us to all kinds of stuff at North High, constantly bringing different perspectives on dance, while all the time encouraging us to make our own dances and helping us produce them.”

“Colleen has great respect for all forms of dance,” says Diane Aldis, Minnesota dance education coordinator. “She encourages students to find their own voices, their own playing fields in dance. Colleen has a wonderfully conversational way of teaching dance history in the studio by throwing in bits of history, anecdotes, phrases she’s learned in master classes.”

While Colleen wants her students to have experiences that include artistic concepts and processes and historical information, for her it all starts with the act of moving. “Moving is the bones, the scaffolding that everything else hangs on.” When she started dancing at age six in Minnesota, she says, “Rhythm was my thing. Tap and jazz dance in all of its presentational glory was what fed me. I couldn’t sit still and my mother thought this would be an answer for my excess energy. Little did she know it would become a life long journey.”

The journey deepened when she attended Brigham Young University in Utah and witnessed Dee Winterton teaching a class while accompanying himself on a drum. “People were moving across the floor and into the air and smiling and sweating and reaching far into space, and he was coaching and encouraging from the sidelines. I wanted to be a part of that. I knew I wanted to move that big.”

Callahan-Russell’s passionate conviction that teaching, like dancing and choreographing, is an art form led to the formation of the Minnesota Dance Educator’s Coalition (DEC), an organization that supports the teaching of dance in public schools. She believes that dance contains a “deep pedagogy” that is not talked about enough among professional educators of all subject areas.

“Colleen felt teachers are so isolated in schools — that they needed a place to come for rejuvenation and support,” says Aldis. A series of summer workshops for K through college teachers was instituted covering such topics as “Anatomy as a Teaching Tool,” “Cultural Diversity: Beyond Costumes and Exotic Food,” “Creating a Positive Climate For Learning,” and “Dancing Across the Curriculum.” The yearly All-State Dance Education Summit gives teachers the opportunity to network, socialize, and take master classes. “Colleen encouraged communication between experienced and new dance educators who could share ideas and methods informally,” adds Aldis.

DEC has been instrumental in developing and implementing the new Dance-Theater License that enables more graduates to choose dance education as a major in Minnesota public universities. In addition, DEC has fostered an ongoing relationship with Minnesota higher educational institutions as those colleges and departments create curriculum to train college students choosing dance education as their major area of focus.

Callahan-Russell’s pedagogical ingenuity encompasses reaching teachers across the country. In the 1990s, then Dance/USA Executive Director Bonnie Brooks invited her to serve on an educational panel. As part of a task force, Callahan-Russell travelled around the country sharing ideas and talking to artistic and administrative staff in professional companies about what community outreach in the schools looked like to them. “I remember the first time I heard and discussed the concept of ‘appropriation’ was at Dance/USA round table with Donald McKayle. That discussion set me on a path of reflection about a lot of my practices as a white teacher in an urban classroom,” she says.

Cottman, her former student, reflects on Callahan-Russell’s continuing influence on her, and on dance education in Minnesota and around the country. “Now she’s a colleague, and we have these deep discussions (between rehearsals and classes) about dance and race, dance and meaning, art and access, education in the public sphere, and more. She’s so deep, one of my deepest dance mentors.”

Author’s photo: Betsy Husting

Author’s photo: Betsy Husting

Linda Shapiro was a choreographer and co-founder of New Dance Ensemble, a repertory modern dance company that became the New Dance Lab from 1991-1994, a place where choreographers could workshop ideas. She served on the Dance/USA board from 1991-93. For the past decade, she has written about dance, architecture, and numerous other subjects, including personal essays, for publications in Minnesota and for Dance Magazine and The Gay City News in New York. She currently writes short fiction.


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