USC Kaufman senior creates dance outreach program for final project

January 9, 2019

Jackie Schiffner is a senior BFA student at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. In her last year at the school, she is looking to bring dance to those who might not have access to it.

Each senior at USC Kaufman was tasked with creating a final project that combined three areas that interest them. For Schiffner, combining her passions for dance, education and psychology to create a dance outreach program for elementary schoolers was an easy choice.

The Project’s Goals

Schiffner decided to partner with Sequoia Elementary School in Westminster, Calif., for the year. She now focuses on bringing a range of dance styles, as well as her mentorship, to 40 students.

“That was something that was really important to me—not doing what has typically been done in schools before where you just kind of learn ‘step-together-step,’” said Schiffner. “I really wanted to put a focus on different styles of dance and differentiating between them, and also having a focus of choreography. I wanted to have them be able to create something and use that problem solving to figure out, ‘Okay, this doesn’t work here. How do I fix this?’”

Elementary schoolers sit in a large circle on the classroom floor.

Schiffner’s students circle up for class | Photo Courtesy of Jackie Schiffner

Dance and a STEAM Education

Her idea for this project initially came from a psychology course she took at USC. In the class, she examined research that proved how dance education can lead to better results in math and science. For this reason, she wanted to work specifically with a school that had a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) focus, as Sequoia Elementary does.

She also wanted to partner with a school that did not already have a fully developed arts program. At Sequoia Elementary, Schiffner’s mother, who is a teacher there, was previously tasked with leading the students’ dance lessons.

“You have to have a credentialed teacher to teach science and English and math and history,” Schiffner said. “My mom, she’s amazing, but she’s not qualified to teach a dance class.”

Providing Mentorship

Along with bringing quality dance education to the students, Schiffner looks to be an academic and professional mentor for them.

“I think sometimes when kids don’t have an example of somebody who is making a career in the arts or is going to college in the arts, they don’t know that it’s a possibility and so many kids can lose out on that opportunity,” she said.

She hopes to expand on the mentorship aspects of the program by bringing in some of her fellow USC Kaufman students to talk on different topics.

“Especially when I get into my more ballet-focused lessons, I’m going to bring Joseph Hetzer who is one of my main partners here. I’ve found that a lot of boys are turned off of ballet, and I really want to make that a focus as well,” Schiffner said.

She is also organizing a campus visit for her students, where they will tour USC and watch USC Kaufman rehearsals. In addition, she is hoping to have them participate in a panel with representatives from USC’s other arts schools.

Jackie and her students pose in a group with their arms in the air

Schiffner poses with her students | Photo courtesy of Jackie Schiffner

A Change in Perspective

Currently, though, Schiffner’s program is focused on introducing the fundamentals of dance. With mentorship from USC Kaufman faculty member Jackie Kopcsak and Vice Dean & Artistic Director Jodie Gates, Schiffner is learning to shape lessons for students with little-to-no dance experience.

“It is a very different construction of a class. You have to keep them interested the whole time,” she said. “It’s constantly moving on from one thing to another thing. You have to explain it for people that don’t know how to move their bodies. It’s a very different thing when they can’t figure out how to move their right hand to their right knee.”

While Schiffner is changing her approach to dance in this sense, she is impressed by the ways her students are looking at it for the first time.

“I think the coolest thing for me is just seeing kids have confidence,” she said. “Often-time when you don’t know how to do something, especially as you get older, you shy away from that thing. But kids are so open and you just see them going for things that I would never see my other students. I also teach ballet and contemporary at studios, and they’re often late middle-school and high schoolers. You don’t see them going for things as much as you do with kids.”

“It’s really neat when you tell a child, ‘Good job’ and they start to think ‘Oh I can do this.’ I think if somebody tells them now ‘you can do this’ then that will make a difference in their lives.”

Looking Towards the Future

Students will be putting the dance knowledge they’ve learned from Schiffner towards their upcoming school production of “The Jungle Book.” In the future, Schiffner is looking to arrange a separate dance show for them where they can showcase their new moves.

And once she graduates, Schiffner hopes that her involvement in these types of projects continues.

“I want to be a contemporary ballet dancer. But I’m definitely looking at companies that do some sort of outreach,” she said. “That’s something important to me. To be involved somewhere that does have that aspect within the company.”

By Sara Silberman