For more than 30 years, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Dance Company has been bringing dance to children across the state. Jeanne Traxler has been there from the very beginning. She also co-directs Small Feets, a dance company for kids 6 and older, and is involved in the arts in the Brookline public schools. I talked to Jeanne about her work and the importance of the arts in education.
How long have you been dancing?
I started dancing when I was 19, 40 years ago. I had a college PE requirement, so I took a dance class on a whim. It was a modern class, with an emphasis on improvisation. And you know how sometimes people talk about having an out-of-body experience? That’s what it was like. There was a feeling of transcending the moment. It was so much more than a dance class: it was creative movement, and it opened up a new way of thinking for me. I began to understand that dance is made of elements, using space, time, and force to give meaning and form to a creation. Movement can be heavy, light, tight, loose, on the beat, off it. A body can be rounded or angular. It all means different things to the audience or the dancers. Dance can communicate. This is dance as an art form, not as entertainment. Movement creating works of art. This is my passion, on a level for kids!
At the time, I was studying bacteriology and Hebrew. In my mind, that meant I could either study yogurt or be an afternoon school teacher. But I realized I loved dance. And I loved choreography, and I loved telling people what to do. It all just made so much sense for me to go in this direction.
What inspired you to found the Peanut Butter & Jelly Dance Company?
The company was actually founded in Cincinnati, Ohio, years ago. Several dancer friends and I were trying to have jobs where could actually earn a living and get to perform. We were teaching some, but we wanted to bring more dance to more young people. Someone had a friend doing a lecture-demonstration company like this in another city. We thought why not try it in Ohio? For a long time we were one of the few groups doing performances in schools, so we were really busy. The company in Brookline was founded around 1980 after I moved here. There were two of them for a while, but now we are the only one. The company now has four dancers. I personally don’t do the dancing anymore. My focus is on teaching our students, whose ages range from 3 years to 10 years.
Which have you found to be more difficult, performing for young children, or teaching young children?
Neither! That’s our thing. We love it. Little kids are like everyone else. They want to learn and will try anything and love to watch performances. Preschool dance classes are so great because they allow the child to learn to move with his whole body. I have many students that see and feel the magic in dance. They transcend and just dance beautifully and naturally and with intention and invention. Our audiences are usually rapt. This job is really rewarding.
One thing I think is so sad is that you see less and less of the arts in education. When I was a girl, we had art twice a week, and gym three times a week, and music every week. It’s so different than it used to be. I believe that preschool is a perfect time for learning about art and dancing and music. It sets a positive creative foundation for future learning.
And I like little kids. They’re cute.
I’ve been to a few bar mitzvahs where they’ve hired dancers to engage the guests. Have you ever been a bar mitzvah performer?
I’ve never been a bar mitzvah performer. I don’t have that jazzy contemporary training they use. But those performers work REALLY hard. It’s very difficult to keep teenagers involved and enthusiastic, and those performers do a really terrific job. Actually, sometimes, at the bar mitzvahs, I’m the one dancing with the dancer.
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Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!