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Dance Classes Give Students a Toehold in Arts

December 08, 1991|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His older brothers laughed when Norwalk fifth-grader Chris West said he was taking dance classes. They teased him when he practiced or when he performed for his mother's friends.

There was nothing out of the ordinary, however, about this 10-year-old's behavior.

His entire school is dancing.

Walnut Elementary School is one of only two schools in Los Angeles County taking part in an unusual program that uses dance to foster an appreciation of fine arts and of other cultures, teaching students to work together and improve academic performance and self-esteem.

Nearly all of the children belong to lower- and middle-income families who cannot afford to attend dance concerts; 18% are from families receiving welfare assistance. Most of Walnut's 521 students have little exposure to the arts outside of school, Principal Chris Forehan said.

"In other neighborhoods, the kids would be taking dance or music lessons," Forehan said. "These are kids who would not get to see a famous art print or a dance production. . . . If we never showed them dance or famous artworks, they never would have a chance to pursue that."

For 12 weeks, students worked with dancer Gerald McCall on African, Caribbean and American dances that symbolized black culture. The dances frequently spurred discussions on subjects ranging from the slave trade to the music of Scott Joplin.

"There are skeptics who say we should always have our heads in a book, but we have to motivate kids," Forehan said.

In one exercise to stimulate reading, McCall had children dance the meaning of such words as swivel, bounce, reach and arch. Students later repeated the exercise to verses from black poet Langston Hughes.

Walnut School and Gardenhill Elementary in La Mirada are the only two campuses in the county to receive a three-year $140,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to introduce dance to youngsters through schoolwide classes and professional performances. Technical assistance and additional funding came from the Los Angeles County Music Center.

"We live in a society in which playing football, basketball, and being an athlete and competitive is the ideal. That doesn't make boys more courteous to young ladies or considerate of others," said McCall, a 42-year-old classically trained dancer and ballet instructor.

"Dance is the medium I use to communicate everything else to them--the way they relate to one another, the respect they have for one another and individual cultures. That's a much bigger picture than the dance you're doing."

The result is that fifth-grader Bryan Velasco has lately put aside thoughts of baseball to work on his step-kicks. His younger sister, Cynthia, lays down her Nintendo game controls to perfect a slide-jump-together move. And fourth-grader Matthew Vogel has added the tarantula-crawl step to his homework assignments.

Parent Jeannie Newton said the dancing has helped her son learn to communicate better and avoid fights. "Dancing has mellowed him out," she said.

Despite his brothers' teasing, Chris West kept practicing and earned the featured part of a weightlifter in the class performance of a circus scene set to a Scott Joplin tune. His once-skeptical 18-year-old brother taught him some weightlifting moves for the part.

"It's fun, and it's not just for girls and it's not sissy," said Chris, who wore a tank top and tight pants for his weightlifting gig and wrung every moment of suspense as he raised the fake barbells above his head. "Dance is teaching us how to work with each other, and be patient, and when you mess up, don't be mad."

As McCall watched the recent performance by his classes, he could see that the kicks were low and the balance shaky, but the fine points of technique mattered little. He said his reward comes when six sports-crazy boys run up and beg him to begin the plies and tendus of his dance regimen, and when his students draw pictures of their dance class.

"They always draw it with windows," he said. "They always have the sun pouring in, and everybody's always smiling."

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