Summer 2017

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Dionne Champion at her Gary, Ind., performing arts school, DancExcel. Photo by Alex Garcia '98.

Dancing Queen: Dionne Champion

by Sean Hargadon

Dionne Champion can’t stop dancing.

She had tried to put away her dance shoes to focus on her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering when she landed at Florida A&M University in 1994. But a poster advertising an audition caught her eye on her first day of school. She couldn’t resist.

After FAMU, Champion was working as a development engineer at Eastman Kodak when she started doing dance training on the side with Garth Fagan, choreographer of the Broadway production of The Lion King, and his company in Rochester, N.Y.

That’s when “I started to see connections between how I was thinking about things as a dancer and my understanding of physics and chemistry,” says Champion. She went back to school, earning a master’s degree in dance education at Temple University in 2003, to study the relationships between motor skills and cognitive development.

Champion was teaching at a charter school in Boston, developing a program that would help students make those connections, when she received an unexpected offer to buy the Gary, Ind., dance studio where she had trained as a child. In 2004 Champion worked with her business partner, Sherice Grant, and her parents, both former educators, to launch DancExcel, a performing arts school.

“We use the arts as a way of engaging kids, but not just in math and science. We have programs that help them engage in writing and history and all of these different academic disciplines to bridge the gaps that exist in their education,” says Champion, the studio’s director.

DancExcel runs summer programs focusing on skills that combine, for instance, dance and electronics or mathematics and choreography. For example, “we tape up the floor like a Cartesian plane and show them different ways to communicate where they want dancers to be in the space based on X and Y coordinates.”

Champion, a doctoral candidate in learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy, is exploring the use of movement as a communication tool and how that reshapes cognition. “Once kids start to figure out how to express something with their bodies, it actually changes the way that they think about the concept. In this day and age, when we’re becoming more and more virtual and less embodied, it’s an argument for learning through being a person inside your body.”

Champion, who lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, goes back to Gary regularly to work with the students at DancExcel. “That’s kept me grounded,” she says. “To prevent the brilliant minds of these kids from falling through the cracks, that’s one of the things that moved me to come to Northwestern.”

Champion plans to wrap up her dissertation this summer. She recently accepted a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Education Research Collaborative in Cambridge, Mass. She’s also been offered a position on the education faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.