Ah, the joys of elementary school. Send yourself back to kindergarten, second, or fifth grade, and picture this: an assembly where you get to watch a group of dance students from Western take the basic math concepts being taught in your academic curriculum and make them come to life through movement. Sounds pretty good, right? Western’s Dance Makers is a group that tours to local elementary schools, bringing movement into the school curriculum in a way that complements and heightens students’ understanding of academic concepts. Co-directed by Jessica Kruger Stahl and Kate Ranger, two Western alumnae, this will be the sixth consecutive year that Dance Makers has graced local schools, and local stages, with exciting movement that is interactive, educational, and accessible for the whole family.
The program is designed for students from kindergarten through fifth grade, and Stahl said that the age and developmental discrepancy existent among kids that span such different ages make for the most difficult facet to directing a group like this. “The fun and the challenge is creating a program that is accessible for kindergarten, but still enjoyable for fifth graders.” She said the group has accepted that some of the material will be at an academic level that might be review for some older students, but that does not mean it is not enjoyable. “We’re dealing with simple arithmetic, but even as college students, we’re having fun with these concepts,” said Stahl.
When the group goes into schools, they perform three set pieces, choreographed by Stahl and Ranger. These pieces highlight the particular element in the school curriculum that the Dance Makers program aims to teach; this year, that concept is math. Stahl said, “interspersed with these three pieces are opportunities for kids to come up on stage and work with dancers.” She said the group leaves ample opportunity for audience involvement, ranging from group shout-out moments to individual participation in onstage activities. For example, to illustrate this year’s theme of math and movement, the Dance Makers will present shapes that are either symmetrical or asymmetrical. The kids get to participate as a group by shouting out “asymmetrical!” or “symmetrical!” depending on the nature of the shape. Kids love participation like this, so they have fun, and learn something too.
“Kids are all about getting to move. You ask so many kids what their favorite subject is and they say ‘recess,’ because they want to move; it’s natural,” said Stahl. Showing them how they can move in connection to subject matter makes that subject matter more fun, tangible, and exciting. Using movement is a great way to teach basic math concepts, because dance and choreography are fundamentally reliant on counting, geometry and spatial patterns.
Dance Makers is one great way that Western students are involved in the local community. Dance Makers works with Kimberly Taylor and Lynne McNette, two women involved with the Allied Arts education project. They go into specific elementary school classrooms for one and two-week residencies, teaching dance in a more in-depth fashion than Dance Makers can in their short assembly performances. Dance Makers works with Allied Arts to focus on the same subject matter— that way, the kids involved in both programs get a thorough dose of the concepts covered, and the kids who just see the Dance Makers assembly still get to experience and learn from the linking of math and movement.
In addition to providing a useful learning tool, Stahl sees teaching movement to kids as a good way to help them understand dance as an art form. A very common response many people have to seeing their first dance concert is, “it was cool, but I didn’t get it; I didn’t understand.” Stahl said, “I think for kids, this program is providing them with a way to help them understand dance. It can help give them that first jump into the questions, ‘How do I approach this art form?’ ‘How do I understand it?’” Perhaps the next generation of school children, at least here in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, will not only enjoy, but truly identify with and understand the dance concerts they attend as adults.
Dance Makers will perform on December 2, at 6 and 8 p.m., at Ving!, located at 311 E. Holly St., downtown. The show will include the assembly performance they bring to schools, as well as a musical performance by Mike Bajuk and Karl Olson, and a performance by the dance program’s choreography class. Tickets are $5 for students and $10 for seniors, and can be purchased at the PAC Box office, at 650-6146. For more information, or to book a Dance Makers show, contact Jessica Kruger Stahl at 650-7293.