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New Haven’s Neighborhood Music School’s dance program turns 40 years old this year. Tracey Albert has been there for the last 20 years, growing the collaborative dance program. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Learning dance can be empowering, especially when the student has a say in the final product. In her 20 years at the Neighborhood Music School (NMS) in New Haven, Tracey Albert has pioneered collaborative learning practices for all ages.
“That, for me, came from being in a dance company in the New Haven area,” Tracey says. “It was so impactful for me as a dancer that it really changed the way that I wanted to teach.”
She danced with Barbara Feldman’s group for ten years, where the dancers all created dance pieces collaboratively from bits of ideas an inspiration.
Tracey grew up in North Branford, where she started dancing at three years old. She went to Boston Conservatory for two years but knew that she wanted to go to New York to dance.
“I did the whole auditioning stuff for a few years then I found that I was not a good waitress,” she says.
So she came back to the New Haven area to teach at her old studio and eventually found a position at NMS. She’s lived in East Haven now for 27 years.
Traditional dance studios favor a teacher-led approach in which the dance instructor chooses the music and the dance choreography to teach the students.
“Here, it’s collaborative choreography so the students and the teaching artist work together to build the piece,” she says.
“When I found myself here…the cornerstone of the program was that the process was more important than the product, so it really gave me the opportunity to use the collaborative idea in the studio,” Tracey says.
At first, she was using the collaborative style of teaching in her own ballet and modern dance classes, but when she took over as department chair 18 years ago, the practice began to spread throughout the school.
“I decided this was really empowering our students because the process really teaches you a lot of things,” Tracey says. “It teaches you how to have an idea, how to have the courage to present your idea, get feedback, teach it to other people, listen to other people.”
Not only is this helpful in the world of dance, it’s a set of skills that builds creativity and confidence for all of life’s problems, she’s found.
Depending on the age group, this means students have a chance to choose anything from the music involved to creating dance “phrases” and “sentences” to be bundled into the larger piece.
“By the time they’re teenagers, those kids can really build the piece from the beginning to the end and the teaching artist acts really as a director,” she says.
Until they get there, collaborative teaching can be challenging. The teaching artist has to instruct dance technique as well as integrate the ideas of their younger members to help them feel validated and confident.
“The atmosphere is really of supporting each other so if somebody is unsure about how they’re presenting [their idea], they’re getting support to feel better about that,” she says. “So hopefully as time goes by they’re more confident.”
It’s not the only thing that’s changed in the 40 years of dance classes at NMS. This year, NMS is holding a concert to celebrate the milestone.
Previous dance department heads will also be there to talk about how they changed the program.
“It’s bringing dancers and families that have touched us over the last 40 years here together,” Tracey says.
The invitation-only event will feature performances by NMS’s premier dance company and by faculty.
During her 20 years, Tracey says, the program has grown from less than 50 students to more than 200. Jazz, hip hop, and tap dancing have joined ballet and modern dance lessons. NMS has also expanded to offer more adult programming.
“Adults, when they come here, it’s safe and everybody is learning at their own level,” Tracey says. “They don’t always perform, but they’re learning in a comfortable place.”
People of all ages and backgrounds come to dance at NMS.
“The adults come because they always wanted to dance but they couldn’t. Some danced when they were growing up and then when they got into life they moved away from it, but their heart was still calling for them to do that,” Tracey says. “The kids are coming, when they’re really little, mostly because it’s a parent-driven thing…Then there’s kids that are wanting to be here. It’s in their soul.”
To nominate a Person of the Week, email Nathan Hughart at n.hughart@Zip06.com.
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