Alumnus Aaron Ramos tackles social justice through dance as a middle school teacher

Alumnus Aaron Ramos, center, with his 8th grade all-boys dance class last year.
Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Ramos

As a dance teacher, Aaron Ramos doesn’t allow himself to get comfortable.

Five years ago, Ramos had gotten to a point where he could teach “in his sleep,” he says, so he began challenging himself – one major goal each year at Franklin Middle School in Somerset where he has taught for over a decade.

This year, Ramos says, his aim has been to teach his students “how to be human beings, how to love, how to respect each other and each other’s struggles and stories. I’m getting the kids to think about subjects and topics that they may not be well aware of, or they may not be too comfortable with. To me, dance should be pushing envelopes, getting people to talk and converse.”

In the several classes he teaches at Franklin – one with all girls, one with all boys, and one mixed – Ramos is working on dances that he says “people need to see and hear,” with subjects including immigration and the #MeToo movement.

“I want the students to feel it, because they’re the ones dancing it. You can’t fake movement.”

Tackling these topics through dance may sound a bit advanced for 7th and 8th graders, but Ramos says his students can handle it.

“These kids may be in middle school, but they’re old enough and smart enough to know what to do,” Ramos says. “You just have to give them that chance and the opportunity, because they are capable.”

Franklin Township Public Schools is one of just a handful of districts nationwide that teaches dance from elementary to high school and caught the attention of producers at NJTV’s State of the Arts. Ramos and his all-boys 8th-grade advanced dance class were featured on the program last year performing a dance centered on social justice.

 “With what’s going on in our nation with Black Lives Matter, I thought, let’s see if we can deal with a topic that’s big,” says Ramos. “Our demographic is mostly African American and Hispanic, and I thought, these boys need it. They’re the ones who are going to be either changing what’s happening or letting it continue to happen.”

The piece was centered on the poem “Black Boys Die Easy” by Akeem Olaj and choreographed to accompany the words.

“Some kids were crying,” says Ramos. “Some kids were quiet for a while – and that never happened before. These boys have so much energy.”

Ramos freely expresses his emotions with students, and encourages them to do the same through dance. This is especially valuable, he says, when creating choreography.

“I want the students to feel it, because they’re the ones dancing it,” says Ramos. “You can’t fake movement.”

Aaron Ramos’s 8th grade all-girls dance class.
Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Ramos

The dance, Black Boys in America: Kings, premiered at the districtwide curriculum showcase last January, and brought the packed auditorium to tears, says Ramos, who at first worried that the performance might be too controversial.

“At the end, though, African-American fathers came up to me and thanked me for it,” says Ramos. “Just to have their voice be put out there, that meant a lot to them. I’ve never seen so many fathers cry. That’s what dance is about. It’s supposed to change lives.”

Ramos says he draws from his own experience as a young immigrant to the United States from the Philippines who found it challenging to prepare for a college education.

“I’m the first generation to go to college, so I did not know anything about it – I didn’t know the process, I didn’t know how financial aid worked,” Ramos says. “I had to figure it all out for myself.”

He credits the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), which provides financial assistance and support services to New Jersey students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds to attend college in the state, as well as supportive Mason Gross School of the Arts dance faculty and classmates, for helping him complete his BFA degree.

“I know the importance of having that person who can guide you in the right direction,” says Ramos, who now mentors EOF students each semester.

Ramos gets emotional when he talks about the role of dance in his life, saying that without it, he wouldn’t have gone to college, and certainly wouldn’t have become a teacher.

His love for dance has been absorbed by his students, many of whom play sports and have benefited from the flexibility, agility, strength, and discipline they’ve acquired in Ramos’s classes.

Dance also teaches life lessons, Ramos says, including punctuality and the importance of being reliable, respectful, and responsible. Students learn that dance can be emotionally supportive, just as it was when Ramos was a Rutgers student.

“It’s a comfort zone for them,” Ramos says. “I’m using dance as a way to encourage them that there’s more to life than just dance—but if dance is all you have, just take it and run away with it.”