Philadelphia School District students are learning through dance

A residency from Rennie Harris Puremovement is part of a Penn Live Arts program which offers pre-performance visits to local schools.

In a basement dance studio at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in North Philly, Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM) executive director and company manager Rodney Hill surveyed Geoffrey Winikur’s 11th grade class. They’d just completed a dance warmup led by Puremovement dancers Justine Diggs-Cunningham and Rachel Snider, building upon two weeks of improv games, conversation and monologue writing led by Penn Live Arts teaching artist Donnell Powell. The dancers’ visit was the third in a series of four visits to Carver and to West Philadelphia High School, comprising a school partnership in connection with the three-year Rennie Harris residency, sponsored by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and in collaboration with the Teachers Institute of Philadelphia.

Donnell Powell in a gymnasium with young students.
Penn Live Arts teaching artist Donnell Powell. (Image: Edward Epstein)

Hill, a North Philly native, asked several students to share where they were from—neighborhoods, intersections, specific blocks. The answers popcorned back. He pressed them: What’s something you like about your neighborhood? What’s something you don’t like? The good: papi stores, community, the way people know and greet each other, family being close by, block parties. The bad: violence, trash.

The students’ answers built upon two previous sessions with Powell in which they explored how an object might represent something they valued or observed about their communities. Under his direction, students also began to develop monologues from the perspectives of those objects. With the arrival of Snider and Diggs-Cunningham, they focused on using hip hop dance vocabulary to pair movement with the emotional arcs of their writing.

While the company’s performances this season are part of Toll the Bell, a season-long project highlighting the challenges of gun violence in the city and nationwide, the school residency took a gentler approach, activating a range of creative modes to invite students to respond to what they noticed in their communities. Some observations naturally gravitated toward the problems adults might pick out as most salient, like violence; others focused on matters of personal concern to 16-year-olds, including money, sports, school and sleep.

The artists’ visits extend the model of the new Penn Live Arts program which offers pre-performance visits to schools planning to attend a show in the Student Discovery Series, the long-running school-group matinee program. Philadelphia-area teaching artists learn about the themes, techniques, and influences key to an upcoming performance and design a developmentally appropriate class plan to prepare and empower students for what they’ll see in the theatre. In the model developed in connection with RHPM, the number of visits increased and emphasized collaboration between company dancers and a PLA teaching artist. The program will continue throughout the company’s residency in the 2024/25 and 2025/26 seasons.

Read more at Penn Live Arts.