At GroundWorks DanceTheater, one of our core values is to help empower the next generation through movement. Using movement concepts as a springboard, our desire is to provide a unique opportunity for students in Northeast Ohio to explore the creative process of dance with GroundWorks artists.

For nearly two decades we have had the privilege of working with diverse populations in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Akron public schools, parochial, charter and Montessori schools, reaching some 4,500 students in 80 schools since 2003.

“One of the things I am most proud of is the recognition that the program has received over the years,” says Mark Otloski, who has led GroundWorks’ Education Outreach Program since its inception and who will step down at the end of the year as Education Director to join his family on its next adventure in Denver. “When I contact schools often they are already aware of us, which speaks to the reputation of the company and the program itself. It’s extremely rewarding that we have made that kind of impact.”

Mark shares about his experience at the helm of the company’s outreach program, how GroundWorks has made an impact on the community, and what comes next for him.

What has been the best part of your role as Education Director at GroundWorks?

The opportunity to engage students. We so often work with schools because they have experienced budget cuts to the arts, or in some cases the arts have been completely eliminated from the curriculum. To have the chance to work with students and to watch them express themselves is the best.

Tell us more about the Education Outreach Program. How did it come to be?

David (Shimotakahara) and I knew each other professionally – he danced with Ohio Ballet and I danced with Cleveland Ballet – but we had never collaborated personally. Shortly after David founded GroundWorks, he was looking to create an Education Coordinator position and asked me to apply. I was a dancer with the company and education coordinator for the first seven years. Later, I wanted to create a solid education program for GroundWorks and for the past 10 years has served as Education Director.

The program itself has three components – first we introduce a movement language that gives students an opportunity to explore and experiment with. Then we introduce three different exercises which the students engage with individually and with small groups. It’s amazing what they come up with and create together. They create this two-minute movement study that has a beginning, middle and end, all done in an hour and 10 minutes. At the end of the workshop, the students present their works to each other.

How does the program integrate what the students learn in the classroom with what they learn in the workshops?

You can take just about any concept and integrate movement. Physical sciences, mathematics, literature. If you have a concept, the concept has an explanation and you can apply that explanation through dance.

For example, we had a workshop that centered around decimals and decimal placement. The teachers wanted the students to understand place values on a number line and the concept of numbers getting smaller when you move the decimal to the left, and numbers getting larger when moving the decimal to the right. We helped reinforce this idea with the students by using movement. We had them stand in a line and while moving right to left, their movements got smaller and vice versa.

We’ve created workshops that integrate concepts around physics (energy transfer), haiku, poetry, multiplication and division. You name it, we can create a movement study around it. The teachers are always floored when they see what the kids come up with.

What kind of impact has the program had on students?

We did a residency with Benjamin Franklin School in Cleveland and one particular story stands out. We were doing some basic exercises with the students, working in groups. There was a teacher who approached me in a panic. She was concerned about an older boy in the group, who was in 4th grade and was apparently known as the class bully. She was concerned about him working with a younger group of 3rd graders. This boy ended up working very well with the other students. He wasn’t bullying any of his peers. We were at that school for a few years, following these students and this young man, two to three years into the program, was no longer known as the class bully. I like to think the program gave him an outlet for his aggressive behavior and helped him redirect that energy in a much more positive way.

Why are the arts important in education?

The arts have a powerful way of reaching young people. Movement is a more personal way of communicating, it engages people and is something we seem to be losing touch with. It’s this very simple but beautiful idea of just being able to meet someone face to face and engage with them in that moment in time. It makes for a more human experience.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you find dance?

I discovered dance through my older sister. There was a house in the neighborhood where we grew up in Michigan, and the teacher had a ballet studio in her basement where my sister was taking classes. I was always intrigued by what was going on in the studio. I remember going to one of her performances. They did a ballet version of The Little Mermaid. There were seven or eight boys that were sailors in the performance. I was nine years old at the time and thought, “I could be really good if I could do that.” My mom signed me up and I was like a duck to water after that.

I came to Ohio to dance with Cleveland Ballet, which I did for 22 years. Then I met David through professional circles and joined GroundWorks for their third season. It’s been like lightning striking twice. I’ve had the opportunity to work with two very well-respected arts organizations in Cleveland. I don’t know how that happened and what factors led to that convergence. But I am very thankful for it.

Following your departure from GroundWorks, what’s next on the horizon?

I’ll be moving to Colorado to join my family at the end of the year. My wife moved there last August to lead the ballet program at Cherry Creek Dance in Denver. I will be reuniting with her and our 5-year-old daughter. I’m looking forward to this next chapter. There’s a thriving arts community in Denver and I look forward to exploring educational programming opportunities out there.

I hesitate to the use the word “retirement” because I don’t plan to be out of touch with David or the company. We will continue to collaborate with each other. That’s the unique nature of GroundWorks.