Aspen Community School dances to Mexico
December 13, 2008
ASPEN ” Last Thursday morning, the yellow gym of the Aspen Community School was transformed into a rehearsal studio, complete with 20 dancing, running and jumping first- and second-grade students.
As musical director Tim Ribner played his keyboard, guest dance teacher Jennifer Box took the students through an hour of constant activity ” progressing from a dancing reminder about discipline, to a warm-up that looked something like a cross between a line dance and the Hokey-Pokey, to a full dance rehearsal ” without actually ever seeming to stop for breath.
It’s such an energetic stream of activities that when she finally tells the students to sit down at the end of their first full dance number, they collapse breathlessly and are remarkably still while Box gives them a few pointers.
It’s the second of five dance classes Box and her cohorts will teach at ACS today, as the students prepare for the annual ACS all-school performance on Wednesday, Dec. 17. It will mark the ninth time Denver-based dance education nonprofit Celebrate the Beat and the Aspen Community School have teamed up for a performance, according to principal Jim Gilchrist.
In the beginning, said Gilchrist, the performance was a small affair with just two grades. Four or five years ago, ACS decided to try an all-school performance, and they’ve never looked back.
“Somehow it’s all choreographed … it’s kind of mind-blowing,” said Gilchrist. “It’s sort of stunning, the final performance.”
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To prepare, Box, her assistant Heather Kratz and musical director Tim Ribner will spend 30-60 minutes a day with every class for three weeks leading up to the performance.
Learning to dance is like learning to read, said Box. Readers begin with words, then sentences, and finally progress to a book. In her rehearsals, dancers learn steps, then eight-step combinations, and finally put the combinations together in a dance.
How do you teach 122 students ” and their teachers ” to dance? Box has a toolkit of tricks, including colored “x’s” of painter’s tape, call-and-response sayings to corral students’ attention (“criss-cross applesauce” she’ll say, “don’t forget to wipe your paws” the students respond), slow-motion rehearsals, the use of teachers as imaginary eight-graders not to be smushed, and breaking all dances down into eight-step combinations.
On Thursday, the first and second-grade dancers count over and over to eight as they practice their dance, to help them remember their step combinations.
“You always hear the counting of eights echoing through the gym,” Box said later, laughing.
This year, the school is performing a dance about Mexico that was originally created by the National Dance Institute and first performed last year by NDI students in New York City.
To complement the dance, students are also learning about the aspect of Mexico they’ll be dancing about in their academic classrooms, according to Box and ACS principal Jim Gilchrist. The kindergarten class is learning about Monarch butterflies and their connection to the Day of the Dead, the first and second-grade students have the Mexican marketplace, third and fourth-grade students are deep into an examination of Frida Kahlo (which includes painting self-portraits like the crippled Kahlo did ” lying on their backs and looking in a mirror). Fifth and sixth-grade students are learning about the Day of the Dead and the seventh and eight-grade students are studying the Montezuma-Cortes battle between the Spanish and Aztecs.
But both Box and Gilchrist confirm the learning the students are doing in rehearsals is as important as what they’re doing in the classroom.
“We are a nonprofit dance program,” said Box. “But our goal is not to teach dances. Teaching children discipline and just becoming good learners and having fun is our goal, but yet the means is through dance.”
Dance, said Box, is a means to teach kids discipline, tenacity, and the learning process itself. And Gilchrist adds that having a variety of learning opportunities allows each child an opportunity to succeed.
“You’ve got to find ways for people to succeed instead of finding ways for kids to give up,” he said. “Is it art, is it music, is it traditional academics?”
Unfortunately, he said, opportunities to learn skills like dance are disappearing from schools nationwide.
“These are the kinds of programs that schools are letting go of and I just think that’s criminal,” he said.
The Aspen Community School will perform their dance at 4:30 and 6 p.m. on Nov. 17 at the ACS gym.