Michelle Parkins has lived in a lot of places — including Rochester, Syracuse, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), Austin, Murfreesboro (Tennessee) and Belgium. But when she arrived at Teachers College this past summer as a student in the College’s doctoral program in dance education, Parkins (who goes by “Chell”) says, “it felt like I was coming home in a lot of ways.”

Created in 2016 by a gift from Jody and John Arnhold, the nation’s sole doctoral dance education program promotes research to broaden and advance the instruction of dance in PreK-12 public schools. As part of the program’s second cohort, Parkins, who is a Doctoral Fellow, is reaping the benefits of the new Arnhold Institute for Dance Education Research, Policy & Leadership, created by the Arnholds this past fall with a new $6.085 million gift.

[Read the announcement of the gift from Jody and John Arnhold establishing the Arnhold Institute at Teachers College. Read a profile of Jody Gottfried Arnhold that appeared in TC Today, the magazine of Teachers College.]

The combined focus of TC’s program on pedagogy and policy is ideal for Parkins, who sees dance as a vehicle for social justice.

“I wasn’t as interested in virtuosic dance,” she says. “I was interested in how dance can help change lives and impact emotional development.”

Parkins founded her first dance company when she was just 23, but discovered the medium’s transformative power while working for humanitarian organizations in Colombia, Nicaragua and Guatemala, where children living in extreme poverty explored movement as a means for empowerment. The path that led her to TC, however, began on the outskirts of Austin, where Parkins was working as a full-time dance teacher in an under-served community's high school after completing her M.F.A in Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. The job, which often consumed up to 70 hours a week, was both exhausting and rewarding.

“The experience at the high school left a lasting impact on me because it showed more than ever the possibilities of dance,” she says.

Parkins moved to Murfreesboro to teach at Middle Tennessee State University and simultaneously serve as Executive Director of the Tennessee Association of Dance. But she missed teaching kids and wanted to improve the climate for dance in schools. Eventually, the new Arnhold Institute beckoned.

A single mother of two teens now enrolled in nearby schools, Parkins spent her first weeks at TC absorbing new horizons in dance and dance education from Arnhold Institute Director Barbara Bashaw.

“With Dr. Bashaw, I feel I have finally found a mentor who understands me better than I understand myself,” she says. “She sees my strengths as they serve the dance education community. I am also working with Dr. Bashaw on a dance reconstruction project. It is a wonderful but unique opportunity to dance with Dr. Bashaw and a few of my peers. As dancers, even though we are here to focus on our research, it is a needed time for us to be in our bodies and simply dance.”

The next step, she says, will be to merge her own experiences in the dance world with the research that will form the basis of her dissertation.

I’m drawn toward identifying pathways in dance for marginalized communities. I don’t know where it will take me. But I do know I will always be an advocate for equitable access to dance education.

— Michelle Parkins

“Our coursework is clearly laying the foundations for my future research, and will guide me as I investigate theory and frame the methodology for my dissertation.   

I’m drawn toward identifying pathways in dance for marginalized communities. I don’t know where it will take me. But I do know I will always be an advocate for equitable access to dance education.”