The Wonderful Minds of First and Second Graders

I had the pleasure of teaching my first class with a great group of 1st and 2nd graders at Dawes Elementary this week. They are learning two Dance Around the World dances, so we began by talking about dance and why they think people dance.

I was amazed that they responded with, "To show other people our culture," or "To show everyone we're happy", and, my favorite, "To get better and better so we can dance at parties."

We talked about their first dance from the Philippines, the Pandango Sa Ilao, which they kept calling the "Fandango Sake Lao." They got the pronunciation in the end, and who can blame them for taking some time to get it? That's a mouthful for adults!

I told them to close their eyes and pretend they were on an island, but when I asked if they could smell the saltwater, one student said, "No. I smell hot dogs." (They were dancing in their lunch room.)

It was all I could do to keep from laughing. This is going to be a great session, I just know it.

Favorite Dances

When I asked the kids to choose their favorite dances, their answers reminded me of all the different perspectives on dance, and all the various opportunities you can explore within the art.

A very energetic Elliot loves to swing dance and salsa. He feels as though "I get to do my own thing" more in those dances than the others. In the counts when they get to freestyle a bit, Elliot is a choreographer. Hopping on one leg, tuning, jumping, shimmying are all moves he likes to throw into the routine, surprising me every time.

Rebecca likes the more formal dances, tango and waltz. She says that, "In tango we get to be dramatic. It's fun to pretend to be someone else." She also feels as if, "waltz is hard, so I feel good when I get it right." Her perspective reminds me of ballerinas in the role of Odile in Swan Lake, mastering some of the most difficult choreography while enjoying and exploring the character even more.

Merengue is a favorite of a lot of my class. A couple students say "merengue is the most fun because it's fun to dance with your partner", "it's like we are at a party with our whole class." These kids are my social dancers. They enjoy the community and companionship of dance. Making eye contact and having fun together is something I've experienced in every social dance experience I've had.

It's exciting to recognize the diverse passions within my class, and how reflective they are on what it means to be a dancer. There is no single definition of what a dancer is, what a teacher is, what an artist is, that they can find their own! No matter what inspires them, I'm so happy to share this art, and even more happy that their personalities shine through.

Who Gets to be Elegant?

I'm a big believer that dance is representative of cultural history, and part of what I love about teaching through Dancing With Class is the feeling that I am participating in both teaching and creating cultural history; the cultural history of Chicago students.  A great example is a comment in a recent class from one of my students.

I was teaching the waltz.  I told them that the dance originated in Germany, and explained that it is widely known as one of the most beautiful and elegant dances.  I asked them to imagine doing the waltz as they met Prince William and Princess Kate at a beautiful royal castle.  Then one of my students, Cameron, raised his hand.

"But, Ms Megan... I don't think people in Chicago can be elegant.  There's too much crime and violence here."

His comment blew my mind.  These kids are participating in the Chicago history that's being made right now, and one thing that's been happening in Chicago lately is a lot of violence in neighborhoods.  His comment was a potent reminder that those events have a cultural effect; in this instance, affecting the way Chicago students think about themselves.  Cameron is an example of what many students are undoubtedly thinking; they believe that qualities like elegance and sophistication are not available to them!  they believe that the negative events in the world around them are what defines them.  

Now, I don't know that the waltz is going to be Cameron's favorite dance.  But by participating in this program, Cameron is going to get to go to our Dance-Off... an event we purposely make as elegant as possible, from the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center location, to the requirement that gentlemen wear dress shoes and ladies wear skirts.  And at our Dance-Offs, I have seen an increase in confidence and self-respect in many students; for students I've taught and students I've merely observed.  So I told Cameron: "On the day of our competition, I'm going to ask if you still think people in Chicago can't be elegant."  I'm betting that he's going to change his mind.

I'm proud to make my mark on the cultural history of Chicago by opening up some doors for Chicago students: inviting them to view themselves a little differently, to view what they're able to do a little differently.  I believe that Dancing With Class is changing the culture of Chicago in a positive way, and I feel very privileged to be a part of that.