Arts Spotlight: New Hampshire Dance Institute

a stage full of kids dancing in different colored costumes under blue lighting


No matter where they come from, their family background or skill level, when NHDI students take the stage at the end of the week and show what they’ve learned to an audience—they are all dancers.

The non-profit arts and education organization known as New Hampshire Dance Institute offers year-long, summer and residency programs. Nine schools in the Monadnock Region offer the program to students grades 4 through 8. Many of the students have never danced.

NHDI breaks barriers with founding mission

New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise founded the institute in 1986. Initially, it was an associate program of the National Dance Institute. He founded the nonprofit to make classes available to all students, regardless of means or ability.

Among the initial partners were Marlborough School, Swanzey’s Cutler Elementary School, and Peterborough’s South Meadow School and The Well School. D’Amboise occasionally visited the area to lead classes. To eliminate any barriers to participating, he would have everyone dance in sneakers.

NHDI became an independent organization in 1990, and is now led by artistic director Kristen Leach. More than 25 local elementary and middle schools in the state and in Vermont offer classes. Sessions are held during the school day. The program reaches more than 4,500 children annually.

“When you include audiences in the tens of thousands, it reaches far more,” said Leach. “Audiences and families benefit so much. We’re reaching kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to do this. They aren’t going to a studio. NHDI smashes all barriers that would prevent any child from having an arts-rich experience.”

The beauty of hosting the program at schools is that students are not dependent on getting a ride to rehearsal or dressing in special clothes.

“Everyone has access,” she said.

School curriculum inspires NHDI’s annual show

The annual spring show—the culmination of a week-long school residency—normally features more than 300 dancers.

Each annual show incorporates some of the school curriculum (for 4th through 6th graders) and has a different theme, whether it’s based on history, science or geography, focusing on one central character or “hero.”

The 1998 show, “To Fly!” for instance, told the stories of DaVinci and Earhart’s efforts. The 2000 show, “Dancing in Time,” highlighted Albert Einstein and time travel.

This year’s show, “Unearthed,” focused on King Tut and archaeology.

“King Tut was unearthed 100 years ago,” said Leach, who wrote and directed “Unearthed.” “He became king of Egypt at 9 and died at 19. His successor decided to erase him and build over his tomb, so for 3,300 years there was this hole in history…(The show) is about unearthing the story of us through museum artifacts.”

NHDI’s long-time music director, Peter Mansfield, who has also done arranging and orchestration for the Boston Pops Orchestra, leads the live orchestra for the show.

Leach is quick to point out that the annual show is not a dance recital.

“We intentionally use dance to tell a story and relate to each other as humans, creating accessible movement that is exciting and engaging,” she said. “(Students) are not just learning dance, they are part of that story and play a significant role in characters’ lives and in the audience experience.”

The organization works to notify the public of its events via local media channels. Schools notify families, donors, school staff and school board and community members.

“Performances are packed,” said Leach of the audience. “The Winchester show (this year) was standing room only. It’s an opportunity particularly for families who would never see a dance performance to go to a show like that.”

NHDI programming improves school performance

There are a few ways the organization tracks its successes and areas for improvement in school programming in addition to individual testimonials, one being attendance at rehearsals during residency week.

Typically, said Leach, attendance increases and is more consistent that week.

“The other piece is a decrease in detentions or trips to the principal’s office in the week of residency,” she added. “(Kids’) moods are more regulated, there’s consistent focus and attendance. It’s easily tracked.”

More recently, she went on, staff have undergone professional development and training to work with students who’ve experienced trauma.

“We believe in respecting the human; meeting every kid where they are and making sure (if they are not dancing) they are still actively engaged and there because they want to be there,” said Leach.

One part of each school residency program (at the end of each rehearsal session) involves students taking turns running and leaping over a target staff lays in the middle of the floor in the rehearsal space.

“We give them the option,” said Leach. When that happens, participation soars, with each student not only taking part but adding their own personal flair to the movement.

“You have to show you respect them, ” she said.

Each annual show celebrates a hero, but as far as heroes of the organization, Leach said it could be anyone.

“We’re all so obsessed and in love with what we’re doing,” said Leach.

For more information about the Arts Access Project opening doors to the arts, visit Arts Access project and resources.

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