#WeAllDeserveArts: Ashlee McKinnon – Principle Dancer, BREathe Dance Project

September 18, 2020

#WeAllDeserveArts: Involvement in Arts Education Leads to Character Evolution

Growing up in a small town in North Carolina did not afford me the opportunities to experience the Arts in my elementary education or my local community.  Even when I transferred out of city limits to attend a posh private school, I only experienced visual art and choir until 9th grade.  Fortunately, I had supportive parents who viewed the Arts as part of a well-rounded education. Our family traveled to exhibits at the NC Museum of Art, productions of the National Black Repertory Theatre Festival, and annual performances of the Nutcracker Ballet. My mother, a trained pianist and lyric soprano turned attorney, encouraged me to pursue my love for dance- “as long as it did not interfere with my studies or values.”  Because of the encouragement I received to continue my involvement in the Arts, I was also able to experience an evolution in my character, allowing me to thrive rather than merely survive.  

While pursuing a B.A. in Dance at the University of Maryland College Park, I was also highly involved in religious activities, technical theatre, and had such a free and wondrous spirit that the word “limits” was not in my vocabulary.  So when a series of physical injuries forced me to ask “What else could I do with dance besides perform?” I began to connect the dots between my involvement in the Arts and my evolution as a young woman.  In fact, it was in those moments on the physical therapy table that I realized how dance had prepared me to be the resilient young woman I was becoming.  The fortification of my character through my involvement in the Arts has played a pivotal role in my philosophy and pedagogy as an educator.

In 2010, Common Core Standards were implemented in education and, with it, came the introduction of 21st Century Skills (see figure to the left).   Educators were to reimagine the validity of their content in light of these 12 skills in order to prepare future generations to be competitive in a constantly changing global economy and culture.  However, were we not just reinventing the wheel?  I swiftly discovered that I was a product of 21st Century learning when the Arts were not deemed essential or anything more than a glorified hobby.  Of course, students who participate in Arts education acquire all of these skills in clever and engaging ways!  Reading reviews of professional performances enhanced my information literacy; seeing the backstage process during rehearsals and productions enhanced my technology literacy; creating a schedule to manage my dance classes, academic studies, and other activities developed my critical thinking and creativity skills; seeking out my teachers’ help to develop my technique shaped my initiative and communication skills.  In essence, the development of each of the 21st Century Skills can be directly related to my involvement in dance and Arts education.

Dance helped to define me as the Dance educator, Arts advocate, and Black woman that I am today.  It is because of the discipline I learned from training that I was able to rehabilitate from physical injuries.  It is because of the standards set in class from my teachers, that I have such respect and appreciation for my elders. It is because of my exposure to various forms of dance that I am able to think deeply and critically to find meaning and connection.  Throughout the 10 years of my teaching career, I have purposed to produce critical thinking, self-affirmed, informed, and productive citizens of society using dance and arts education as the foundation.  A student’s character is the byproduct of the deeper connection found beyond the stage and the technique when involved in the Arts. Through Arts education, students can cultivate their own voice and point of view for advocacy, develop their collaboration and communication skills, enhance their writing and literacy skills through journaling and peer reviews, and build their character through integrity, grit, authenticity, and respect for themselves, others, and the art form.  Arts education is a unique tool where young people can experience, embody, and evolve.  Without it, young people are missing out on opportunities to fully develop the skills needed to be competitive in a constantly changing and developing global economy and culture.  This is why #WeAllDeserveArts.

Ashlee McKinnon is an avid dance educator striving to merge the physical pursuit of dance with the development of identity and self-awareness in today’s youth. Currently, she serves as a principal dancer with BREathe Dance Project, and a freelance teacher and choreographer in the DMV area.

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