High School Students Benefit Physically & Mentally from Dancing

In a small mirror-lined studio tucked away behind the gymnasium at Carmel High School, Physical Education Teacher Tasha Cucinelli is overseeing big things. The handful of students in the room, and those joining virtually from their homes via a laptop, are here to dance, relax and have fun.

Students participate in class in the dance studio at CHS

For over 20 years, dance classes have been offered as an option for physical education credits for Carmel High School students. There are two levels of classes – an introduction to dance and an advanced level class – that focus on lifelong fitness and a healthy lifestyle, and welcome any student. Currently, Cucinelli teaches three introduction classes and three advanced level classes, and she anticipates even more in the upcoming school year when freshmen students will be offered the class as an option without prior approval.

The high school’s dance program has been a leading example of inclusion in physical education for the last two decades, serving as a model for other districts over the years.

These classes help fill a need that Cucinelli noticed within her students. Throughout the years, Cucinelli found that there was a segment of students who didn’t have the ability to take dance classes outside of school for a variety of reasons. For some, it was lack of time or the inability to find a class that was at their level. For others, it was the inability to pay for such classes. Of her students, about one-quarter are active dancers outside of the classroom setting. Bringing dance class to them in the environment where they spend the bulk of their day just made sense.

“While encouraging cultural and socioeconomic quality, this class has crossed over those barriers and provided the students with something they may not have had otherwise,” said Cucinelli. “My goal with this class is not only to teach dance for fitness and artistic purposes, but also for the social-emotional health benefits.”

This year, in particular, highlighted how important the social-emotional benefits that the dance classes provide are for the students.

“My favorite part of this class is just getting up and not sitting down in a chair watching a screen. I am all remote, so it’s good for me to get up and dance and do something I love with good people,” said junior Leanna Florez.

“This class is a really nice space, not only to dance, but to meditate, discuss good stories and make personal connections,” said senior Olivia DeFonce, who has been a dancer for much of her life. “It’s always been a safe space where I know I can enjoy dance, trust the people around me, and take a breather.”

“I think that this class is a saving grace for students,” said Cucinelli. “I have students who take this class every year for four years. Once they come into this room, they don’t want to leave!”

Students participate in dance class remotely via Zoom

For the last few years, Cucinelli has been fostering a “RISE UP” project in the classes, where the students choose a meaningful topic each year to dedicate their dance energy to. At the beginning of each year, the students each choose one attribute that they personally want to focus on and “rise up” for. This year, the classes chose RISE UP for America as the theme and will prepare their annual dance performance with that theme in mind.

“I chose humanity as my attribute this year because I feel that with all the politics, we forget that we are all human first,” said DeFonce. “In order to be unified, we have to recognize that we are all human at the end of the day.”

“I chose unity because I think it’s important in a time where everyone is divided to remember that we are all Rising up for America, and rising up for the same cause,” said Florez.

Outside of the classroom, Cucinelli helps foster additional dance opportunities for the students – from the Dance Team where they perform at athletic events and in the community, compete against other teams, and put on an annual showcase, to roles in the school’s musical theater productions. Many of her students are also athletes in other sports.

“The dance program extends out and supports so many other programs,” said Cucinelli. “For example, this program supports the music program and the music program supports my dancers.”

For students looking to continue dance studies post-high school, having dance opportunities through their public schooling on their resume helps highlight their commitment on college applications. Several students in the dance program over the years have moved on to dance for major college dance teams and have begun their own careers in dance. There is so much student talent in Cucinelli’s programs that she is looking to further recognize that success by bringing a chapter of the National Honor Society for Dance Arts to the high school in the upcoming year.

“These students deserve this,” said Cucinelli. “They just put in so much time and effort.”