Parkrose youngsters swing and sway their way to better grades

Discover how ballroom dance instruction, of all things, helps Sacramento Elementary students become better students and future citizens …

Ballroom dance instructors Daniel Hutchison and Rachel Lidskog demonstrate skills they teach.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Nasty wintry weather didn’t keep about 20 parents from coming to a special assembly at Sacramento Elementary School in the Parkrose School District, just before school let out for the Holidays.

Just before the fifth graders filed into the gym, instructor Daniel Hutchinson explained, “Today we’re going to have a ballroom dancing demonstration, showing what our students have learned during the past eight weeks. They’ve learned several different dances styles they’ll showcase here today.”

Hutchinson said the young students spent one period each week learning swing, waltz, tango, and merengue styles of ballroom dancing.

Sacramento Elementary School fifth graders Monica Chao and Alex Truong look like they enjoy showing off their newly-acquired dance skills.

Learning more than steps
“Ballroom dancing is really a vehicle in which to teach the children more about etiquette and teamwork,” Hutchinson explained. “Learning to dance inspires self-confidence.”

In addition to learning how to move to music, dance classes also teach a form of “social education” not often covered – the nature of “appropriate touch” in a social setting.

Some mathematics skills are also involved! Dance patterns, Hutchinson noted, are based on four, eight, or sixteen counts – or, in the case of the waltz, 3, 6, or 12 counts.  “And, dancers also must accurately count the number of certain turns and steps in whole numbers, and sometimes in fractions.”

Hooked on dancing
Lead instructor Rachel Lidskog shook the snow off her jacket as we met, and talked about the unique concept of teaching ballroom dancing to fifth-graders.

“The fun part for me is watching students transform from being skeptical about learning to dance – to deciding that it’s fun, and that they enjoy dancing,” said Lidskog. “At first, they’re unsure. Then, as they catch on, the find the ‘hook’ that excites them, and they really start wanting to learn.”

Every person, whether child or an adult, has a different sense of rhythm, Lidskog told us. “For some, rhythm in natural — but it can be taught. If one listens to music as a young child – or if their parents dance – than they usually find rhythm sooner.”

Lidskog said she’s taught dance for twenty years, and has been instructing fifth-graders for about eight years. “We actually start teaching children as young as second grade. This particular program was started by Young Audiences of Oregon.”

The program, funded by a grant funded by MetLife, helps children improve their physical health while they develop mental skills. “We want youngsters to be able to step away from video games, and develop skills leading to a healthier lifestyle – both now, and into their adult years,” Lidskog explained.

“1, 2, 3, and under,” calls instructor Lidskog, helping the students stay on beat.

Teachers overcome nervousness, too
The dance instructors said they enjoyed watching the Sacramento School teachers who took the classes along with their students, added Lidskog.

When a teacher gets involved, their class reflects their level of interest, she went on. “Some of the teachers are a little bit nervous about learning to dance, just like their students are. But when they admit their uncertainty to their students, their students realize that it’s okay to feel hesitant about learning something new.”

Stevie Blakely, Principal of Sacramento Elementary School, takes a turn on the floor with a student dance partner, as does fifth-grade teacher Julie Klansnic.

Says classes influence students’ behavior
After Stevie Blakely, Principal of Sacramento Elementary School, took a turn dancing, she told us, “It’s been wonderful to have this experience for our fifth-grade students.”

In addition to the exercise they get during the dance classes, and the physical skills they learn, Blakely said another important lesson the students learn is increased respect for one another.

“We’ve actually seen this new level of respect transfer outside the class,” observed Blakley. “There’s been much less teasing among students. They have to put themselves outside of their comfort zone when they’re doing this, and now they understand what it’s like when others see you differently.”

Sacramento is one of four schools in the greater Portland area chosen by the Young Audiences grant program, which provides $10,000 worth of instruction for $1,000 in matching funding, the Blakely added. “In so many ways, this has been a great investment.”

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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