“Uncharted” is a new interview series created in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re talking to people in the New Mexico arts world and beyond to see how the community is navigating this unprecedented health crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Executive Director of NDI New Mexico
Daisy Geoffrey: Tell me about the decision to bring NDI online?
Russell Baker: The word I keep hearing everywhere is “pivot.” We’ve been teaching kids to do the pivot turn for 25 years in New Mexico. At NDI we’ve been pivoting multiple times a day. It’s in our core.
We decided to go online because we felt like we didn’t have a choice. The safety and health of the children we work with are top priorities and core values for us. Following the instructions of the governor and the CDC to not gather in groups was not a choice, but what was a choice was that we didn’t have to stop being connected, and didn’t have to stop doing what we’re doing.
We also felt so driven and compelled to do what we do because of the impact and importance that we know to be learning and to be connected and to be moving has in children’s lives, and to have art and music and dance in their lives. We felt we can’t let that go away. So we experimented and found that teaching classes and choreography and putting out exercises and games online was something that we can do, and we thought that if we can do that, then we can probably get better at it. We challenged ourselves to see how we can deliver what’s special about NDI—which I think is not just teaching dance steps to kids—it’s connection, motivation, inspiration… these things that happen in the classroom. We wanted to figure out how to bring those online, too.
How did you go about those experiments of adapting your methodology to be online?
We first put video messages out to our students and looked at what those messages were like. If the teacher was standing way back and you couldn’t hear their voice, or were they up close, were they smiling—we applied what we do in the classroom when we’re working on choreography to ask, is that reading the way we want it to, or are people going to experience this the way we mean for them to experience it?
We then revised the way we did those videos. Then we started teaching in small chunks, thinking, what if we don’t have to teach a whole class, what if we just teach a warm-up? What would a warm-up look like on Zoom or on YouTube Live or on video? We practiced with each other, again we assessed, does it work? If you’re teaching a dance step, but the camera can only see your shoulders and your head, but the students need to see your feet, we asked, how do you hold the phone? How do you get good lighting? How do you count in the musician when there’s a lag time? We built up some best practices and made a list of what works and what to avoid.
How are you managing the challenges of access to technology?
That’s a good question, and I don’t know that we’ve necessarily fully addressed them, but they’re in progress and we continue to work on some of those challenges. One of the things we did was communicate thoroughly and quickly with our partners—public school systems, principals, and teachers at the schools—to learn about what technology exists and how to connect with that technology. For instance, a lot of schools are using tablets in the classroom or giving tablets to take home. Some of these tablets have disabled elements as protections for children—so we work with school districts to get on a whitelist to be accessible through the NDI New Mexico website or YouTube channel.
For students that don’t have internet access or if they don’t have phones or tablets to access our programs, that’s a lot harder. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve been a part of other arts groups that are trying to encourage school districts to let kids keep their tablets over the summer. From my understanding both Santa Fe and Albuquerque—at least those are the only two I know about, others might be doing it—are going to let students keep the tablets all summer so that they can continue to use them to access programs like NDI and many others that do summer programs that will be beneficial for kids.
What challenges do you expect the students to encounter with this?
For the NDI program in particular, one of the things that I think about is the connection in a dance class with all the other dancers, the teacher, and the musicians, and the interactions that happen among students as friends. I think they see NDI as a place where they make friends, they have friends, and maybe even have friends from different parts of town that they never would have met otherwise, and they look forward to getting to spend time together. It’s a challenge to find ways for students to be connected to one another.
What about NDI and its impact keeps you going in these hard moments?
The thing that keeps us going is that we love children, and we are dedicated to teaching children and bringing something important to their lives. The arts, music, and dancing are important. How you feel when you do those things, and also how you feel when you practice something and you get better at it, is something we believe every child deserves to experience. So we’re motivated by that. That’s what keeps us going.
What we teach at NDI we call the “Core Four.” We teach kids to work hard, to do their best, to never give up, and to be healthy. So, why do you learn these things? Because everyone experiences challenges in their lives. And what are we all experiencing right now? We’re experiencing a challenge that’s so big they call it a pandemic—it has its own word—and everyone is experiencing it at the same time. But what are we all trying to do? We’re all trying to be healthy. We’re trying to figure out how to not give up. Living up to those values right now is going to help get us all through.
We’re helping kids see that those values are the things that help get you through life. And they come from the arts.