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Pittsburgh's Attack Theatre uses dance to boost motivation, academics in schools

Attack Theatre instructor Abbie Krefta leads students in a dance.
Attack Theatre
Attack Theatre instructor Abbie Krefta leads students participating in the Woodland Hill's Summer B.O.O.S.T. Program.

In a school that’s normally pretty quiet, students are stomping, dancing, and surprisingly, learning.

It’s a summer camp day in July, and kids at Woodland Hills School District's summer camp are laughing on the playground. Second-grader Aidyn Sullivan is among those at the camp at Dickson Preparatory Middle School.

“I just think it's fun moving around… and just moving your body around,” Sullivan said.

Attack Theatre Company is a Pittsburgh-based dance organization, which puts on performances in the city throughout the year. But for 28 years, they’ve also taken their talents into classrooms around the region, including this one, where Sullivan is dancing his way through learning.

“I think learning because it's all fun, But I like making friends, and my favorite activity is probably this one, 'cause we've had it so many times." Sullivan said. "We dance and do stuff, and then we walk around and turn a couple dance moves into choreography."

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Attack Theatre’s recipe for student success lies in muscle memory. There’s a growing body of research that indicates teaching students body movements and choreography that ties into learning keeps many students engaged and having fun while learning. One study found incorporating dance into math classes in younger grades not only improved math skills, but also creative thinking, motivation, critical thinking and motor skills.

Today, kids are learning about emotions — one of Attack Theatre’s favorite subject matters. Dance instructors take kids on a nature walk, gathering inspiration to create a dance routine identifying emotions they encounter along the way. Some students stretch their arms high into a point to replicate a nearby cell phone tower; others gently wave their arms to show the tall grass blowing in the breeze.

Attack Theatre’s Teaching Artist Savionne Chambers said she sees students develop their minds and emotions.

“It's not only great for them physically to watch them blossom and become more coordinated, but it's a great opportunity to validate them as people, their thoughts, their feelings, their creativity,” Chambers said.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, Chambers said many students had a hard time transitioning back into classroom settings. Kinesthetic and social and emotional learning are the foundations Attack uses to help students and teachers, as well as keep academic performance up. According to research cited by the Department of Education, students who had social and emotional learning in their curriculum scored an average of eleven percentage points higher than students without.

“Teaching art, especially movement, allows them to be more in tune with their body, which is a great thing because during COVID, a lot of the students were at home and some students don't have access to space aside from, you know, providing their essential, you know, functions of eating, sleeping, you know, entertainment,” said Chambers.

Attack Theatre has worked with over 11,000 students, teachers, and administrators from 24 different schools over the past year, and Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director Michele De la Reza is still hoping to expand their reach.

“Not only are we going to continue to go out into the community working with these thousands of students and teachers each year, but we also are opening our doors and welcoming folks into our space as well for classes, for community convenings, for performances and for movers of all ages and all abilities,” De la Reza said.

This summer, Attack Theatre is collaborating with Pittsburgh Public School’s summer B.O.O.S.T. program, a no-cost summer learning program for students, to bring dance and movement to even more classrooms. They plan to dispatch into more schools throughout the fall, including Duquesne City’s Elementary schools.

“I'd say that one of our most important goals is that all participants find the joy and curiosity in learning, and that can be experienced through movement, through collaboration with other people, and through generating new ideas and sharing them with others,” said De la Reza.

Addison is a Junior at Point Park University, majoring in Broadcast Reporting. She is the News Director for Point Park's campus station, U-View Television and reports on the show Daybreak. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and spending time with her cat, Soup.