With the majority of live dance performances and classes now online only, how do you keep children engaged in learning about dance? Books! Reading is an interactive way to teach not only steps and basic technique, but also to weave a narrative of dance history in a way that’s fun. We found two companies that are using books as an aid to their online dance programming and, guess what? It’s fun for the student, teachers and writers too. If you look on the surface American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York City and Bollywood Groove (bG) based here in Chicago don’t have much in common. But both organizations have realized how important reading can be in educating their students about the history and practice in their respective genres. After all, dance is really storytelling on a stage instead of a page.
ABTKids 2020 partnered with Random House Children’s Books in publishing two books written by John Robert Allman. The first, “B is for Ballet,” will be the focus of an online event this Saturday narrated by actress Jennifer Garner and will have family-friendly programming featuring dancers from ABT. The 30-minute program will be streamed for free on ABT’s YouTube channel. Similarly, Ajanta Chakraborty, co-founder of bG, has an active YouTube channel—Culture Groove Kids. She hosts a free monthly Cultural Storytime on Facebook and has virtual “Dance and Stories with Ms. Ajanta” classes blending reading, history and movement. The success of bG’s kids programming was so successful that Chakraborty and her husband started writing Indian-inspired children’s books and now have 12 in total, many of them bestsellers on Amazon. “We call ourselves accidental authors,” she said in a phone interview. “We were creating all of this cultural content for classes but nobody could access it unless they were in class in Chicago. We wanted kids to be able to access it anywhere.”
Allman fell into his second career writing for kids by accident too. (He works full-time in marketing at HBO, while Chakraborty also works a corporate job in the tech industry.) Allman wrote his first book, “A is for Audra,” as a gag gift for a co-worker who “didn’t know her divas.” As a theater and musical theater kid growing up, Broadway star Audra McDonald was an easy topic for his first foray into the genre. His friends thought it was clever, he pitched it around and soon had a contract with Random House. “Serendipitously, my editor had done a deal with ABT to do a handful of books right around the time my book was coming out,” Allman said. “Knowing that I had a background in dance and had just done a rhyming alphabet book about the theater, she let me play around and I fell in love with the possibilities.” His other book for the ABT series is “Boys Dance!” published by Doubleday Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House.
One of the hardest things about writing for kids is how to distill a lot of information into “bite-size,” understandable chunks. The authors go about this in different ways. Chakraborty focuses on a specific event and goes all in on that topic. “Our kids classes have always been about cultural stories. It can be a festival or a place…anything that gives them a bigger context of India as opposed to just dance moves,” she said. “We tie the two together. They may learn about a region and then learn a dance from that region. Each book discusses one event or region at a time. Kids love to celebrate. That’s why we focus on festival, so it’s not just a chore.”
Allman’s book has a broader focus. Not only did he have to write about ballet in general, but also tie in the history of ABT as a company. “We wanted to be specific about ABT’s repertory and history while still being broad enough to be appealing to ballet lovers all over the place,” he said.
Add in the need to tie each subject to a letter and you have a much more complicated task. After researching terminology, key ballets and history, he found fun ways to incorporate the knowledge into rhyming text tied to a letter. “There were a few where we were able to bend the rules a bit and cram in two or three ideas within one letter,” said Allman. “For example, B is for the barre where you find balance and it’s also for Baryshnikov, so we fit all three ideas into one couplet and the illustrator (Rachel Dean) cleverly showed two of ABT’s dancers at the barre in the studio where in the background are posters of Baryshnikov on the wall. We are covering three ideas organically in a very concise, authentic way.”
Lauren Post, a dancer in ABT’s corps de ballet since 2008, is part of the online event this Saturday. She and a few other ABT dancers, along with students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, filmed a promotional trailer for the book with dancers interacting with the kids and reading portions of the book. “I am an avid reader and having a 14-month-old baby who I read to daily definitely makes me appreciate well-written children’s books even more,” Post said. “I think ‘B is for Ballet’ is an awesome book. I will read this book to my daughter.” Post’s Shih Tzu Brussels Griffon mix, Pickles, also makes a cameo debut in the film.
Online learning is a necessity in this period of pandemic self-distancing and these books, along with countless others, help to keep children learning and growing. Dance is a way to keep kids active and mobile when sitting at a desk on a computer is the new norm. Whether ballet or Bollywood, Allman and Chakraborty’s books help bridge the gap from studio to living room. Books can take you to a new world without leaving home and teach you lessons you will keep for the rest of your life. “We’ve been able to create content in a way that no one is intimidated,” said Chakraborty. “We want to raise multi-cultural kids. It’s so important for them to know there are many different ways of living. It creates empathy. It creates kindness. They start to connect the dots and see the world as not just ‘you and me.’ They develop respect for everybody.”
Editor's note: What Vicki didn't tell you is that she's a children's book author, too! You can find her book "The Furry Princess," created with illustrator Christopher Scott Bell, online here.