Who Runs The World? Girls! Using Dance to Get Moving in STEM

Teaching STEM and dance together can be a catalyst for progress.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Yamilée Toussaint (New York ’08) is the founder of STEM From Dance and also works on Teach For America’s Growth, Development, Partnerships team.  She is a 2013 Winner of Teach For America’s Social Innovation Award.

Nearly 80% of future careers will require awareness of and facility with STEM. But with a mere 2% (approx.) of STEM workers being Black/Hispanic women (U.S. Department of Commerce), low STEM engagement has become an enormous barrier to access to the economic freedom and empowerment offered by STEM careers.

I wasn’t awakened to this problem until I got to college.  I was one of two black female students in the mechanical engineering department of my graduating class at MIT.

When you look around your college classroom and only see a few people who look like you, doubt starts to creep in. That doubt can make you hesitate to ask questions, give up when confused, and shy away from exploration.  

At MIT, I witnessed an alarming number of fellow black female students leave the program, under the grip of these self-doubts. When I reflect on what made me stay and thrive, and I believe that it was mainly my mindset. I truly felt “I belong here” and it was this confidence that enabled me to stick it out.

I’ve learned through my own experience as an engineering student and later as a corps member that confidence is one of the main barriers that keep underrepresented minority girls from entering (and staying in) STEM.


A group of young teenage girls practicing a synchronized dance in a school hallway in front of some blue lockers.


Photo provided by Yamilee Toussaint

I’ve also learned that exposure to the arts can dramatically increase confidence. (I gained much of mine from dance.) From a very young age, I was set on stagewith lots of lace, bows, and sequins of course! The  years of dance recitals and hours of practice didn’t just make me a good dancer--they helped me experience a pattern of success and validation.

The old me, reserved and unheard, became tenacious and uninhibited when I dove into dance. I discovered that the more effort I put in, the better I actually got, and I became accustomed to working really hard year-long for the glorious moments of joy and affirmation on stage. As I experienced the payoff for my hard work, I learned that indeed, I was worth investing in.

That’s why I created STEM From Dance. I believe that confidence built from dance translates to confidence in any endeavor in life, even in the STEM classroom. Stacey,  a student from our pilot program at WATCH High School in Brooklyn who had never danced before and was particularly timid in class, remarked at the end of our pilot: “Now, I think dance is easy!” (after she performed a fierce Beyoncé routine to “Run the World”).  

As we show students like Stacey that dance can be easy with practice, we convey that, with practice,  they can also grasp and master challenging concepts in  STEM.

By increasing their confidence through dance alongside increasing their academic readiness and exposure to STEM, they transform into students who are more likely to ask questions, take risks in the classroom, tackle new endeavors, persist through confusion, and explore their intellectual curiosity. These are all characteristics of a student who excels in STEM.

At the end of the day, all students need confidence to succeed in their educational endeavors, but underrepresented minority girls in particular need an additional boost to brave the trials that come with pursuing STEM. Teaching STEM and dance together can be a catalyst for progress that accomplishes more than either of them can achieve alone.

In the immortal words of engineer, industrialist, and avid square dancer Henry Ford:

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you are right.”

STEM From Dance is teaching underrepresented minority girls across the nation that they CAN.

STEM From Dance seeks to increase the number of under-represented minority girls growing up in low-income communities who obtain a STEM degree.  For more information, please visit http://stemfromdance.wordpress.com.


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