Marlene Robbins

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

It looked like a gym class before it evolved into a dance class. It sounded like a social studies class but then morphed into a music class. It felt like a whole lot of fun, but somehow there was a whole lot of learning going on, too.

What exactly was it?

Just another Wednesday afternoon class with Marlene Robbins at Indianola Informal K-8 School in Clintonville.

A couple of dozen second graders had sauntered in. Some shed their shoes right away, while others kept them on. They've had Robbins as their teacher for three years now at this unique Columbus City Schools building, where children in kindergarten through the 8th grade experience a curriculum laden and interwoven with the arts.

Since 1991, Robbins has served as the dance specialist on the faculty, and this second-floor space - "it used to be the girls' gymnasium," Robbins said of the historic brick building on East Weber Road - is her classroom.

"This is all about immigration, you guys," Robbins explained to the eager and energetic crew standing around her. "This dance originated in Russia and went to Israel. It's called the korobushka."

The children have been working on a massive project all school year - creating their own countries. While other teachers weave lessons about math, geography, civics, science, language, art and music into this effort, Robbins is leading the children through the dual tasks of creating a national dance and a national game.

To do so, she first teaches them real national dances, which are also called "folk" or "ethnic" dances. Each one, she explained, evolves from the history and culture of a community and says something about it.

One of the steps she teaches the children, in this romping, stomping, rousing dance, requires a snaking, sideways cross-over step.

"They do it in break dancing, they do it in soccer, they do it in Chinese dance," Robbins shouted over the percussion-heavy world music playing on the sound system.

"Oh!" the light bulb went off for one little girl. "It's the 'grapevine' step!"

Robbins loves the work she does, no matter how many hours she puts in on her feet each day. And for her, this project is bringing her own life in dance full circle. Now 52, the Columbus native grew up in the Eastmoor neighborhood.

"I started folk dancing when I was very young, but I was also more of an athlete," Robbins said after class had ended and the children had demonstrated their newfound Russian folk-dancing skills for the teacher who showed up to escort them to their next class.

"I didn't start formal dance training until I was 19 and I enrolled in Ohio State's dance department," Robbins said. After earning her degree there, Robbins pursued the multi-tasking life that many in the dance world do - performing, teaching and choreographing.

She was part of a vibrant Columbus dance scene in the 1980s when the Third Avenue Performance Space flourished. And she rode the roller coaster of public arts funding during her time with the Ohio Arts Council. She also has earned a master's degree in arts education from Ohio State University.

And in 1991, she found a true home in Indianola's program.

"The school has what's called an 'informal' philosophy," Robbins said. "That means we believe that real, live experiences enable children to learn on a deeper level. It's very child-centered. You have multi-age classrooms."

The school is filled through a lottery system and draws students from all over the city. Begun in the 1970s, it was a K-5 school initially, but about four years ago became a K-8 facility.

And in this unique curriculum, Robbins sees something she wishes she had as a child: "I was totally an ADD kid, even though it was never identified as such. Our kids here come out through cooperative learning. Their spirits stay open."

Indianola Informal K-8 School is located at 251 E. Weber Rd. in Clintonville. For more about the admissions process for lottery-based schools, go to and click on "Parents and Students." Applications for lottery-based middle and elementary schools will be accepted between Feb. 1-28.