THEY ARE on their feet six hours a day, guiding hundreds of youngsters, many of them at the height of childhood silliness and awkwardness, through the basics of movement. But dance teachers Carol Tester and Jessica Forman love it. "This is a dream," Forman says.
The two teach modern dance at the Creative and Performing Arts Center at Thomas Pullen School, the Washington area's only elementary school dedicated to the fine arts. One of a few of its kind in the nation, the school sets aside more than a quarter of class time for daily instruction and training in instrumental and choral music, art, drama and modern dance and ballet, with older students opting to major in one of those fields.
The school opened this fall in Prince George's County, with 50 teachers selected from a pool of 250 applicants. And Tester and Forman know well what a rare opportunity they have in getting a full-time dance position in public education, where arts classes are typically limited to music and visual arts. Tester, a graduate of the University of Maryland who has performed with the Maryland Dance Theater, has done virtually everything associated with her art: teaching yoga, gymnastics and tap and exercise classes on part-time and freelance arrangements. "It's a settling down for me," Tester said recently.
Forman, on the other hand, has for the last 18 years earned a living teaching physical education in Prince George's County, sneaking in dance when she could. "I loved rainy days so we could stay in. Winter was always good," the Juilliard graduate said.
Their charges at Pullen this year include most of the 600 children in kindergarten through eighth grade. A part-time instructor conducts ballet classes.
A visit to a typical Tester or Forman class (held in the gymnasium while construction of two dance studios is completed) shows that clearly not all the students are bound for the Washington Ballet. A portly boy strikes a triangle, signaling a movement change to 20 barefooted youngsters dressed in everything from jeans and tropical print shirts to the standard black leotards. They alternate connecting their various joints and body parts -- knee to head, elbow to shoulder -- in an exercise in counting and stationary movement. "It's balance and coordination," says Tester.
But as any public school teacher will tell you, it's more than that. For those who have not set their goals on toe-shoes, Forman and Tester also teach the basic socialization skills of cooperation and following directions that most teachers have to deal with. If they are not turning out master dancers, at least they are turning out future citizens with a true appreciation of the dance. "I've never worked in public schools," Tester said recently. "I'll be able to see the growth of the kids. I'll be able to see the fruits of my labor."