Dance residency gets kids off their feet, moving to the beat

MONKTON — “Do you want to jump higher?” Karen Amirault shouts to the gymnasium full of Monkton Central School third- and fourth-graders.
The students, spread at arms’ length across the space, giggle and nod. Amirault presses play on an iPod hooked up to a set of speakers. The music begins and the students dance in unison, calling out their moves to stay on track.
The rehearsal goes off without a hitch, save for one boy who, despite valiant effort, is forced to pause midway to tie his shoelaces.
The dance is part of a program called “Movin’ in Monkton,” led by Amirault, a Burlington-based choreographer.
The program is a culmination of efforts by faculty, staff and Principal Susan Stewart, who worked to secure the funding to bring Amirault to the school.
The nine-day residency was made possible through fundraising by the school’s Parent Teacher Organization and a grant from the Vermont Arts Council. It is Amirault’s 8th residency at the school; the most recent was in 2000. In previous years, the school has invited other artists to teach students.
Stewart said the faculty wanted Amirault back, and school officials began the process of acquiring funding.
“We contacted her again this fall, and worked together to write a grant proposal for the Vermont Arts Council,” Stewart said.
For the grant applications, Stewart and Amirault had to articulate how the dance program would address educational Common Core education standards. Amirault described the process as “difficult.”
The council, which dispersed $688,000 in over 172 grants last year, provided the funding the school applied for. Without it, Stewart said, the residency would not have been possible.
Each of the 146 students works with Amirault 45 minutes every day during the residency, which will end Dec. 13.
“Karen can plan and execute well; she is energetic and organized,” Stewart said. “She works in other schools and understands how to make things work. I know I can depend on her.”
Stewart said the program fits well with the school’s mission of molding students into positively contributing citizens who are open to learning.
“Dancing builds community — you have to rely on your classmates,” Stewart said. “It’s disarming to dance with your peers.”
“It’s intensive because each child dances 45 minutes every day,” Amirault said. “It’s actually quite luxurious to be given students every day in a row — we get an awful lot accomplished.”
At the end of each day, students write in their “dance journals,” reflecting on what they are learning and experiencing.
“It’s fun to have the children reflect on their own dance experience,” Amirault said.
Stewart said she has noticed how the climate at the school has changed since the residency began.
“There’s a different vibe in the school,” Stewart said. “We are all having fun together.”
Steward said students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program.
“Teachers get to not be the lead,” Stewart said. “We get to reflect on our practice, about what works — it brings in a lot of positive energy.”
There is also a wellness component to the program, with health and personal goals. Coincidentally, “Movin’ in Monkton” is being a held during a time of year when cold temperatures sometimes make outside exercise difficult.
“There’s movement the entire time,” Stewart said. “There are times when you need extra energetic work going on.”
The culmination of the residency will be a performance by the students on Thursday at 2 p.m. Parents are encouraged to attend. Over 50 minutes, seven student groups will perform.
“At first, the students were nervous,” Amirault said. “Now, they can’t wait.”
There will also be a surprise performance by faculty and staff, and a solo performance by Amirault.
“In the classes, Karen will present moves, but it’s the only time the students will see her perform by herself,” Stewart said. It will also be the first time students get to see the work of their classmates.
The following day, Amirault will screen a video of the performance so students can see their own work.
“The students will see that their own performances were just as good as anyone else’s,” Stewart said. “They can appreciate the work as a whole.”
For Stewart, the benefits of dance are multitudinous.
“It’s a great way to help people talk about interdependency — an opportunity to gain an appreciation of the performing arts, what it’s like to be a performer,” Stewart said.
At the beginning of the residency, Amirault said she asked students what dancing they had done. Some said they played the video game “Dance Dance Revolution” or games on consoles like Nintendo’s Wii. Others had never danced before.
Amirault said she wanted the students’ dances to be achievable, yet challenging.
“To me, there are a group of steps, movement and patterns that a kindergartener is on the cusp of achieving,” Amirault said. “We do a lot of hip-hop because it is exciting, fun and athletic — but not easy. There are some moves they have to work toward.”
Every day, students learn a new move, building towards the final performance. At their rehearsal Tuesday, the third- and fourth-graders nearly had their piece down, except for a few minor hiccups.
Amirault said she also tries to harness the creativity of the students.
“They don’t need to copy me and the way I do it,” she said. “I tell them to have their own personal style.”
Each day when Amirault takes attendance, she encourages students to create a move, and then attempts to incorporate these ideas into the dance.
Amirault hopes the residency will strengthen the bonds of the town.
“Dance is a performing art,” Amirault said. “Many times the community comes out to see a sporting event — it’s awesome to see them come see a children’s dance concert.”
Reporter Zach Despart can be reached at [email protected].

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