By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
It was an uncharacteristically chilly, steel-gray morning in Chandler – not the best weather conditions for dance.
But College of Fine Arts and Production students in GCU’s dance department adjusted to the conditions as they prepared to take the stage – an outdoor amphitheater that embraced them as they looked out onto a grassy incline where third- through fifth-graders at Kyrene de la Paloma Elementary School would take their seats on the dew-covered grass.
The dancers decided to nix their typical dance shoes for athletic shoes or socks – they weren’t quite prepared for the amphitheater’s concrete floor – and then spent a few minutes warming up their muscles before the 8 a.m. performance. It was one of three they would give that morning to about 270 elementary school students.
Kyrene de la Paloma was the third of six schools on this spring’s elementary school dance tour – a tour GCU’s dance department has been embarking on every year for about the past five years.
“In the fall semester, we spend five weeks making this 20- to 30-minute piece, then in the spring we tour the schools,” said junior dance education major/hospitality management minor Tyler Curry, who woke up at 4:45 a.m. to make it to Paloma on time for the dance workshop. “We just want to give them (elementary school students) the opportunity to see dancing.”
The 20 or so dancers launched their dance, a modern, construction-themed piece called “It Needs Work,” with a lesson in audience etiquette.
“What are the things a good audience member does?” they asked.
“Be respectful,” one student answered.
“Clap,” said another.
One of the GCU dancers added, “Also, if there’s anything you find funny, you guys can laugh.”
And the dancers provided plenty of opportunities to laugh.
They performed one section of the work to music from the “Pac-Man” video game and another to the Jefferson Starship hit “We Built This City.”
At one point, dancers uttered, “Building a sandcastle. Put the sand in the bucket. Make sure it’s in there. Mold it, mold it!”
Movements resembled jackhammers and swirling, twirling buckets and people and trucks moving and weaving, in and out, busy, busy, busy. The dancers' attire reflected the theme, too, with patterns on their black shirts meant to resemble what you might see on a blueprint.
The performance even included a few kid-friendly jokes: “What do you call a snowman in Arizona?”
The answer: “Lost.”
Fifth-grade Paloma Elementary teacher Emily Patten said the school heard about GCU’s elementary dance tour during Phoenix Art Museum’s Educator Arts Day.
“We took a dance workshop,” Patten said, and loved it so much that the teachers “hunted them (GCU dance) down."
The tour fit the school’s move to become an Arts Integrated School, in which student learning and achievement is enhanced by teaching all five arts disciplines – visual art, music, theater, media arts and dance. The school is in the third year of a five-year arts-integration process.
It’s why the school touts an amphitheater – a facility that’s a rarity when it comes to public schools.
“This is our newest feature,” Patten said. “Last night we used it for our school talent show, and the high school steel drum band has performed in the amphitheater.”
But one of the art forms lacking at the school, she said, is dance.
“We don’t have dance class in school,” Patten said. "They do dance in P.E. … The plan is to start a class that fifth-graders can start taking.”
The elementary dance tour seemed like a good way to further expand the reach of dance on the campus.
Marlene Strang, elementary dance tour director, said the dance department tries to visit new campuses every year on the tour. The event includes not just a dance performance but a question-and-answer session and some dance instruction.
“We try to keep it fun and interesting and show them something unique,” Strang said.
Paloma students had the chance to do the “Brain Dance,” which Strang said incorporates movement patterns, such as upper body, lower body and cross-lateral movements.
“Right now, we’re going to teach them dance concepts, like shape and energy,” she said of the culminating dance lessons. Paloma students and GCU dancers divided into groups to learn and then perform the “Brown Jug Polka.” “They take these shapes and put it into dance. Hopefully it all connects.”
Patten said students loved the presentation, but so did the teachers, who, she added, are lacking in their professional development when it comes to dance.
“I know that teachers can go back into their classrooms and apply the vocabulary taught in the workshop (straight, angular, twisted and curvy shapes) to enhance their daily instruction,” Patten said. "I also personally plan on incorporating that language and movement into my spelling/vocabulary word reviews to accentuate the importance of syllabication/breaking apart multisyllabic words.”
GCU dancer Sarah Beebe said what she likes about performing for elementary-school students is that, no matter what, they seem to appreciate the dancers.
Also, “Adults usually don’t laugh,” Beebe said, but children haven’t yet learned that kind of audience etiquette. So if something's funny to them, they laugh, which was a response the GCU students were hoping to get with their humorous construction dance.
Dancer Ellie Sheldon said it was important for the team to incorporate elements that would be fun to a young audience.
“It was awesome to see it (the dance) in front of kids for the first time,” she said.
And the kid-friendly jokes?
“They’re a little cheesy, but they loved it,” Sheldon said with a smile.
The GCU elementary dance tour will continue at more campuses through March.
You can reach GCU Today senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or by calling her at 602-639-7901. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.