Dr Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson - educating through dance
If you're working on a theory that dancing is in Jamaicans' DNA, you might want to test Dr Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson.
"It's one of those escape routes ... where when I dance, the world disappears," she said. But she realised early on that she also had a passion to teach, and combining the two has shaped her life. She has journeyed from student at the then-named Cultural Training Centre to principal of the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts, what the centre became. But her journey may never have happened if she had followed her parents.
"I think I saw a newspaper ad from the Cultural Training Centre that if you want to be a dance teacher, apply," she recalled. "I remember showing it to my father, and he was not impressed." She started tertiary education at another institution, but still wanted to teach dance. After visiting the School of Dance one summer, she made up her mind.
"I fell in love with the place," she smiled. "It was my haven, it was an inspiration, it was where I was going to be. Now I just needed to find out how." She did the entrance test, auditioned, got accepted, and even started classes, all without her parents' knowledge. When they eventually found out, they were furious. But after a lengthy daughter-parent talk, they agreed. Her passion to dance and teach only got greater.
"I do believe that my teaching changed as well," she said. "My passion and drive and belief that the arts is the way to educate our youngsters not to become practitioners of any art, but allowing them to understand self, culture and what is their part in its development, grew." She received her diploma in Teacher Education before going abroad for further study, earning her PhD in Dance from Temple University, and her Master of Arts in Dance Education and Bachelor of Science in Dance from the State University of New York College at Brockport.
A former director of the School of Dance where she "literally taught almost every course that was there", Dr DeGrasse-Johnson has a drive to change the arts in schools, specifically for dance, as it is still categorised as physical education. She's a member of the Dance and the Child International, and the National Dance Education Organization reinforces her conviction in the transformative power of dance and, by extension, the arts in education.
She still lectures in Methods for Teaching Studio Dance and Applied Movement Technique for the Classroom. Since 1992, she has worked at the school's junior department as teacher and choreographer and the department's coordinator between 1995 and 2012.
In February 2012, she was selected as principal, overseeing the Caribbean's premier arts college in the English-speaking Caribbean. She admitted she feared having to ignore her area of expertise to ensure none of the arts were neglected.
"That (dance) is my area of expertise, so I must continue, and because we're not where we're supposed to be in this country, in terms of dance on the curriculum, my work is still in process," she said. "I must advocate for dance. But at the same time, I am principal of all that is happening, and that doesn't stop that." A stickler for efficiency and rules, she also believes in empowering people, both students and faculty.
"If you miss it, it's your fault, because I will give you the room to do that (expand)," she said. "With my students, it's the same thing. You do my assignments; you don't come with excuses." As someone who has lived the arts, Dr DeGrasse-Johnson encourages students to ensure the arts are their life.
"Because this thing is going to ask you to go sleepless at nights to think about it," she said. "To eat, sleep, drink this art form." But she said these students could still hone their skills.
"If we allowed them access from early, primary and secondary level, they will be able to use this innovative, creative manner on something else that they are really, truly good at," she said. "Some other thing they can create 'art' from. You can be a good artist as a financier...teach people how to invest better, more creatively." But she said this mindset takes time, energy and especially planning. She noted the belief that students leaving tertiary institutions may not get jobs. But for Dr DeGrasse-Johnson, Jamaicans have an untapped, special trait.
"If we were able to use our art and culture in early childhood, primary and secondary, we would be able to teach the world some things about using a person's ability for their own discoveries, to create new things," she said.
"This creative industry is not something that's 'airy fairy', it's something that we should teach our children to do." She believes Edna Manley is primed to help whomever comes through its doors.
"This college is powerful, and not because we can provide jobs for people when they graduate," she said. "But if you belong here, if your area is really advancement of arts and culture, this college is amazing for you. I can't envision myself doing anything else."