The sounds of Michael Bublé’s “Sway” echo just outside of the Sorensen Arts and Education Complex’s main floor auditorium. Just inside, Juan Carlos Claudio, Assistant Professor of the Department of Modern Dance, is certainly swaying, but not to a traditional Tango, and not in front of a traditional university class.
Instead, Claudio, seated in the midst of a circle of older adults, is extending his arms, swaying side to side, and engaging with the participants of his Dance for Parkinson’s Program.
Over the course of the class, those participating engage in a number of rhythmic, dance-inspired movements that help them to stretch and move. The result is a partnership between art and physical therapy, a way for those experiencing the effects of Parkinson’s disease to gain mobility and combat the degenerative nature of the disease.
Claudio, who was recognized as one of the inaugural recipients of the University of Utah’s Global Engagement Award, is known to his students and fellow faculty as a man dedicated to teaching through community service efforts both locally and internationally. He’s also known for actively teaching his students through hands-on, practical leadership techniques.
“The best thing about these projects is that I see myself as a facilitator. I don’t see myself as the director, but as a collaborator,” Claudio said. “With every project that I put on, I give students the opportunity to teach, become involved, and take on leadership roles.”
This hands on teaching technique is something that is particularly prevalent in Claudio’s work with the Panama Dance and Cultural Exchange program, for which he acts as the Director.
Claudio explained that during his trips for the Panama Dance and Cultural Exchange, he generally only teaches on the first day to provide an example of how things are done. From there, he participates in the classes, and gives his students an opportunity to shine, providing them with notes and feedback over the course of the trip.
“The way I educate students is by providing them the tools, so that when they graduate they already know what to do. It’s not about testing, or reading articles, and nothing else,” Claudio said. “Education should be about active participation, taking action, and implementing the ideas they learn. I try to provide them with small opportunities to do so, so that when they are done here, they already have the experience.”
His work with the Panama Dance and Cultural Exchange began in 2012 in collaboration with the Movement Exchange out of Panama city. The exchange works to take some of the best students from the department of Modern Dance and the Department of Ballet to work with orphans in Panama City over the course of their spring break using art and dance as a form of creative therapy.
“The Panama exchange began when I first started thinking about the opportunity to provide a greater opportunity for community engagement that extended beyond the city itself,” Claudio said.
Over the three years that the program has been running, the number of students engaged has increased year over year. The most recent trip saw 15 students attending the exchange.
In order to ensure students are prepared for the trip and the teaching experiences it involves, Claudio says he ensures that students have taken the proper courses on student teaching methods and secondary education teaching methods. Additionally he goes over a number of planning meetings with them, covering everything from potential lesson plans, human behavior theories, the student hierarchy of needs, conflict resolution, and more.
His hope is to inspire students through the program so that they gain a new perspective on the potential use of art, movement and dance as a powerful teaching tool.
“A lot of the students who come through the Department of Modern Dance want to be dancers for the stage. That is their primary goal,” Claudio said. “Even having taken teaching methodology classes, it’s not until they come to my Dance and Community class and embark on this Panama exchange, that they realize the potential that arts and dance have to change people, communities, and the world.”
This effect is something that Claudio hopes will help students to become more engaged upon their return from the trip as well. With the United States seeing a large influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants, he hopes that his students will be able to take the cultural knowledge they’ve learned through the exchange and use it to benefit the local community here in Salt Lake City as well.
“One of the most rewarding experiences is seeing these students come back, and their minds are blown away by how much dance and the arts can accomplish,” Claudio said. “Seeing the faces of the children they work with and how much happiness we bring to their lives, how much we find we love each other within a week is beautiful and palpable.”
As for future civic engagement projects, Claudio hopes to continue his work with the Dance for Parkinson’s Program, which is the first of its kind in the entire state. He hopes to get more student involvement with the project.
As a result of receiving the University of Utah’s Global Engagement Award, Claudio said he has been spurred on to a greater focus on actively participating in international work through the university.
“Receiving this award has given me the real opportunity to break away and expand the scope of my work,” Claudio said.
He additionally hopes to be able to expand the work he has done through the Panama exchange to additional countries such as Brazil and India, and potentially open it to all students at the University of Utah.