Sparking Something Bigger: A Donor’s Big Bet on Dance Education is Starting to Pay Dividends

A few years ago, Jody Gottfried Arnhold and her husband John gave $4.36 million to Columbia University to make New York City the dance education capital of the world. Recent developments suggest things are trending positively. This spring, the 92nd Street Y, located on Manhattan’s the Upper East Side, announced a $5 million gift from the Arnholds to the Harkness Dance Center to expand Buttenweiser Hall and create a new flexible-use space to be named for Arnhold.

Jody is the founder of the 92nd Street Y’s Dance Education Laboratory, which has enjoyed tremendous success in recent years. “Probably 3,000 dance artists and educators have come to the Dance Education Laboratory, and today, there are close to 500 dance teachers in New York City Public Schools,” she said. According to the 92nd Street Y, the gift will enable the center to “meet the expectations of its growing patron base through enchanted programming and training for a new generation of teachers.”

Jody, who serves on the 92nd Street Y board, told the New York Times’ Peter Libbey that the donation was also motivated by her affection for the organization and its role in cultivating modern dance. “In the ’30s, there was no place else to see modern dance, and a small cadre of people came to the Y to watch Martha Graham and those early dance pioneers who created the dance form,” she said.

A Growing Footprint

With a second big gift in less than three years, the Arnholds have carved out a distinctive and impactful philanthropic brand around dance education in a sector relatively devoid of big-ticket patrons.

Jody certainly gives from experience. She has taught dance at public schools throughout New York City for more than two decades. In 2015, she co-chaired the creation of the New York City Department of Education’s “Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts in Dance: Grades Pre-K-12." The document provided guidelines for “implementing rich and creative instruction” and aligning the arts and Common Core.

Jody received the 2008 Spotlight in Dance Education Award presented by the New York City Department of Education, created the Arnhold Graduate Dance Education Program at Hunter College, and was the benefactor behind the doctorate in dance education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

A few years back, she financed the production of PS Dance! The one-hour special, which aired on PBS, examined the effect that dance education programs have on children and teens throughout New York City. “It started as simply wanting to answer the question of ‘What is dance education?’ because too many people just don’t know,” said Arnhold. “But it’s become more than that. It’s now become kind of a spark to a movement, which is dance for every child.”

The movement gained momentum a year later, thanks to the Arnholds’ gift to Columbia University’s Teachers College. The Arnholds’ intent was to “ensure that Teachers College will create the next generation of leadership in the field of dance education,” and ultimately, according to Columbia, “place a certified dance teacher in every public school in New York City.” As I noted at the time, it was an audacious goal. In 2015, the New York public school system employed approximately 400 dance teachers, 192 of them certified in dance education, for its 1,800 schools.

Less than three years later, however, the Arnholds’ vision doesn’t seem all that outlandish. First, as Jody noted, the city now employs approximately 500 dance teachers—a 25 percent increase over 2015. Second, by supporting the expansion of the Harkness Dance Center’s Buttenweiser Hall and the creation of a new flexible-use space, the Arnholds’ gift is proof that there is surging demand for dance education instruction in the city.

“Harkness Dance Center is the historic home of modern dance, and a leader in dance education, teacher training, and curriculum development through the Dance Education Laboratory,” Jody said. “I'm proud to support the center’s physical expansion with this gift, which will allow even more students, educators and audience members to benefit from all that 92Y has to offer in dance.”

“The Kale of Exercise”

The research community has also caught up to the Arnholds’ way of thinking. While everyone knows intuitively that dance is a good thing, new studies show that dance provides “multiple cognitive and physical health benefits, suggesting it may be the kale of exercise,” wrote the New York Times Marilyn Friedman back in April. Specifically, dancing “integrates several brain functions at once kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional—further increasing your neural connectivity,” said Richard Powers, a social and historic dance instructor at Stanford University.

This is an important development. All across arts philanthropy, organizations and arts advocates have been promoting the quantifiable benefits of the “arts experience” in an effort to secure funding. Research showing that dance isn’t merely a whimsical hobby but a legitimate path to better public health can provide a critical boost to the field. The more proponents can demonstrate the physical, mental and social benefits of dance—especially among children—the more likely donors will give dance education organizations a second look.

In related analysis, check out our take on the Arnhold Foundation, the philanthropic vehicle established by Jody’s father-in-law, Henry Arnhold, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 96. It last reported assets of a half-billion dollars and is a prolific funder of dance.