Malibu High learns to dance

Malibu High School’s physical education teacher, Rich Lawson, said he hopes the dance program spurs a lifelong interest in dance in his students, especially for the boys, who he said aren’t always encouraged to learn dance.

Elizabeth Arnold / Special to The Malibu Times

Rich Lawson, a physical education teacher at Malibu High School, knows the physical and educational benefits of dance. His mother was a ballet dancer who danced in films in the 1950s and 1960s. And now, his students at the high school have the opportunity to experience the art of dance in his P.E. classes every Thursday. The funding for the dance classes comes from the For the Arts campaign by the Education Foundation of Santa Monica-Malibu, which gave Malibu High School $7,500 to implement the classes into its physical education curriculum. The classes will be offered for eight weeks each during the fall and spring semesters.

Robert Gilliam, a critically acclaimed urban contemporary dancer and choreographer, teaches the dance classes, which began last week. Gilliam’s unique style of rhythmic dance comes from years of studying ballet, modern dance, jazz and traditional African dance. He studied dance at the California Institute of the Arts, and has worked with the Beijing Opera and various prominent companies throughout Spain, Brazil and Asia. The Education Foundation, which is also funding dance programs at Olympic High School and Santa Monica High School, said Gilliam was so well received during the pilot program at Santa Monica High School last year that they asked him to continue teaching the class at all three schools this year.

“Robert really connected with the kids immediately,” Lawson said. “Some students were shy and didn’t respond at first, but Robert was able to bring out the best in them and make physical activity enjoyable.”

Lawson said one way that Gilliam connected with his students was through his choice of music. He used contemporary music that the students could relate to and, by the end of the first class, everyone was moving along to the beats. Lawson said that Gilliam got the students engaged by starting out slowly with the dance steps, allowing each to work through their initial self-consciousness and become comfortable with the movements.

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For The Arts is funding the dance programs at all three public high schools in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. The dance programs will directly impact 250 students. Due to the success of the For The Arts endowment, $20,000 will be spent annually for dance. For the Arts’ mission is to maintain and enhance the quality of fine arts education-music, visual arts, dance and drama-for every student in the school district through the creation of a permanent endowment fund.

“For The Arts wants to grow the fine arts endowment and is looking for parents and community members who want to help provide and sustain arts opportunities in our public schools,” said Linda Gross, executive director of the Education Foundation of Santa Monica-Malibu.

“We are thrilled that the For The Arts endowment is providing dance opportunities for so many students for the very first time,” Gross added. “The P.E. teachers tell us that their students look forward to dance every week.”

Lawson said he feels that these dance classes are so beneficial and positive for his students that he wishes funding was available for middle school students as well. He said all his students were talking about the dance class on Friday, and let him know how much they enjoyed it.

Knowing the positive impact that dance has on people, Lawson himself tried to implement a dance program into his P.E. curriculum in the past.

“As the student’s physical education teacher and coach, I didn’t have the credibility of a dance instructor that Robert has,” Lawson said. “The kids are very attentive to him.”

Lawson said he is excited that many of his students are being introduced to dance through this program. He said that when Gilliam asked the class how many people had taken dance lessons before, only 10 percent to 12 percent of the students raised their hands. Lawson pointed out that several Malibu High School students take private dance lessons daily, and have their physical education requirement waived-they use their dance classes as independent P.E.

The P.E. teacher said he hopes that this program spurs a lifelong interest in dance in his students, especially for the boys, who he said aren’t always encouraged to learn dance. From a coaching standpoint, Lawson said dance can provide a great foundation for sports training, and can be very beneficial for upper-level athletes.

He said he was thankful for the opportunity his students have in learning to dance.

“We all came away from Thursday’s dance class having had a positive experience,” he said.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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