Wheeler’s Dance Program Builds on Success Ahead of Winter Showcase

January 20, 2022

Erin Muccino ‘04 instructs a class of Upper School students as part of the growing dance program.
Erin Muccino ‘04 instructs a class of Upper School students as part of the growing dance program.

For Erin Muccino ‘04, heading up Wheeler School’s dance program is more than her profession – it’s a passion. An alumna of both Wheeler and the Hamilton School, she has seen the dance program expand from its early days as a single Aerie enrichment course to become a pillar of Wheeler’s performing arts. Now, with the upcoming Winter Dance Showcase, the community can see how much the students and the program have grown together.

When Muccino returned to Wheeler as a teacher in 2012, she wanted to use her degree in dance pedagogy from Butler University and her experience with Festival Ballet Providence to begin building a program of her own at Wheeler. In the beginning, dance was offered to an Upper School class before expanding into Lower School and Middle School classes.

“The following year was the first time that we did a Spring Dance Showcase, and I think we had maybe around 20 kids between the Lower School, Middle School, and Upper School,” Muccino said.

From those small beginnings, she added Dance Club which met during lunch recess, an offering that she says was especially popular with the younger Lower School students. Soon after, Muccino created the Winter Dance Showcase, an annual event that now features over 60 dancers throughout Wheeler. 

“After about three years, we started a minor dance class that offered a performing arts credit,” she said. “We also have an after-school program for Upper School students that has really thrived.” Through the program, students meet for two hours twice a week to hone their choreography that will then be performed during both dance showcases.

Over the years, Muccino has been proud to see the “scope and sequence” of the program evolve from an elective-based class into a larger part of the curriculum.  As a recent example, this year, Wheeler 2nd-graders take a combination of dance and music once in the eight-day cycle. In Middle School, 7th-graders can take dance or movement, and dance is also offered in Lower School as part of Physical Education.

“Everyone is moving and getting that break in the day to connect with themselves,” she said.

Diverse enrichment courses are available for Upper School students as well, including West African dance, intermediate and advanced ballet, musical theater, student choreography, and barre fit, which Muccino says is an exercise class that is even used by Wheeler athletes as a form of cross-training.

Dance program students learn West African dance from
Students have access to a variety of dance classes and collaborative programs with contributors like Assi Coulibaly a West African dance enrichment teacher.

A welcoming and accepting atmosphere has been a major part of the guiding philosophy behind the class and its success. Muccino embraces the fundamental idea of offering students something they might not know they have an interest in.

“It’s about meeting them where they are and not having the expectation that someone has to know how to dance to join in, especially in the elective classes,” Muccino said.

Students are also encouraged to express themselves during classes. Dance allows them to work through stress or anxiety by channeling it into their movements, which can be important for students who may feel they don’t have the words to communicate their struggles or emotions.

“I think that’s one of the beautiful things about dance,” Muccino said.

Highlighting different forms of dance and music have also contributed to the program’s growth. For example, Muccino’s program collaborated this year with Assi Coulibaly, a West African dance enrichment teacher, on a fusion piece where all Upper School Dancers learned a traditional West African dance that Muccino and Coulibaly choreographed by incorporating the traditional movements with contemporary dance elements.  

“Learning about other cultures through their movement is important,” Muccino said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented in-person performances of the Winter Dance Showcase for the past two two years, it hasn’t slowed the momentum of the program or the dancers themselves. The showcase has shifted to a recorded format for this year, but Muccino said that even just the dress rehearsal with costumes, head pieces, and props was a game changer for students who had gone without the event for so long. The full event can be watched online here. (Note: To obtain access to the video, please email wheelerschoolbroadcasting@wheelergmail.com to receive a password.) 

“You could see once again the excitement and joy of these kids as they get out on stage and share their work,” Muccino said. “It was a reminder of what performing feels like and that sense of community.”

Lower School students learn dance from Erin Muccino ‘04.
Like other students, dancers in the Lower School are encouraged to channel their emotions into their movements.

This concept of a “community of sharing” has stood as one of the biggest reasons Muccino wanted to start the dance program back in 2012. A decade later, it remains a great opportunity for students to share what they love to do with everyone around them.

“Wheeler had given me so much and, as a Hamilton and Wheeler alumna, taught me how important it was to have good role models,” she said. 

She credits the great help of many at Wheeler for their ongoing support, particularly Aerie Enrichment Program Director Mark Harris, who offered instrumental support and guidance during the early days of the program. Muccino also thanked division leaders, previous and current department heads, and the diligence of her students for the dance program’s successes.

“If it wasn’t for the openness of the Wheeler community to help foster this program, it would not exist,” she said. “I feel very grateful to work in a space where ‘new’ is encouraged.”

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