In a classroom at Eastside High School on a late Wednesday morning, “The Harlem Shake” is blasting through a pair of speakers. A group of students is gathered in a circle, working on warming up their muscles under the direction of Kelsey Crum and Alyson Amato, dance educators at Carolina Dance Collaborative (CDC). The room is bustling with activity and energy. It’s the second week of a five-week special education residency that CDC is bringing to four local high schools, and the students are eager to get started.
The program, which began Oct. 24 and runs through Nov. 28, is being held at JL Mann, Berea, Riverside and Eastside high schools. Crum and Amato are visiting the schools’ special education classrooms once a week and, for the length of a class period, are teaching a dance and arts integration curriculum to students. They hope that this special education residency is just the beginning of similar programs the CDC will introduce to local high schools.
Crum and Amato, who both graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor of Arts in dance education, co-founded CDC in spring 2015. The mobile dance outreach program offers a wide range of curriculums — including YMCA classes, in-school and after-school programs, senior citizen classes, adult classes and classes for those with disabilities and special needs — to provide the public with dance experiences. CDC aims to share both the physical and creative self-expression of dance with all demographics in order to “improve self-esteem, self-confidence, body awareness and collaboration.” Including Crum and Amato, the company currently has 10 dance instructors.
Most of CDC’s current school programs are held at elementary schools, but Crum and Amato wanted to find a way to reach out to local high schools as well. They agreed the best approach to engage with older students was to simultaneously connect with those who have disabilities and special needs.
“I’m glad we were asked to be involved, because I knew my students would want to do this,” says Kim Sinclair, a special education teacher at Eastside. “They all love dance and music … We’re always creating our own [activities in the classroom], so it’s nice for someone to come in and provide this.”
The students have also welcomed the opportunity.
“I like learning the dance moves,” says Jacob Reed, one of Mrs. Sinclair’s students. He says it is his first time learning how to dance and that he enjoys music.
Ally Howard, another student, says with a big smile that “having fun” is her favorite part about learning dance.
CDC is a for-profit company, but they often work with nonprofits to expand access to their various programs. The Barbara Stone Foundation, which strives to improve the quality of life for those with disabilities, is providing the necessary funding to make the high school special education residency a reality for these students. The Barbara Stone Foundation has also helped provide scholarships for the company’s disability outreach programs, which include a Saturday morning Connect class, held at First Baptist Greenville, and the Adaptive Christmas Flash Mob, a yearly performance at the Fountain Inn Annual Christmas Festival. The students currently participating in the special education program can also attend these programs if they want to learn more.
“Barbara Stone has always been very supportive. They see a need for recreation programs for people with disabilities,” says Crum, CDC’s managing director. “There isn’t a whole lot out there, especially when it comes to dance, so they wanted to provide that funding for the programs that we do have.”
Between the four high schools, 55 special education students are participating in the program. Eighteen peer tutors, students who volunteer to assist the teachers in the special education classrooms, also attend the sessions. At Eastside, the classroom has four peer tutors who provide encouragement to their classmates and help them complete the movements.
“[The peer tutors] have a relationship with those students and get to know them throughout the year,” says Crum. “They’ve been really helpful with this project. We couldn’t do it without the additional assistance. They help them engage in more ways than we could.”
In addition to the dance component of the residency, Amato, the CDC’s director of education and development, has created an arts integration curriculum for the students that incorporates history lessons. During the program, the students have been learning about the cultural and historical significance of the Harlem Renaissance.
“We wanted to take the concepts of dance and movement by connecting it to an academic portion to broaden their view of dance and show them that what they are learning in the classroom can be explored outside of us being there,” says Crum.
At the beginning of this particular lesson, Amato and Crum conduct a brief review of what the students have learned so far about the Great Migration of the early and mid-1900s. The previous week had specifically focused on the modes of transportation that African-Americans utilized to move from the South to the North, including a car, train, and horse and carriage. To relate that back to dance and movement, the students all perform motions that correspond to these objects.
“Take your horse’s reins,” Amato tells the students when they’re about to mimic a horse and carriage. She raises her arms in front of her and makes two fists. “And remember it’s a gallop, so move those legs up and down,” she says, demonstrating the motion as the students follow her lead and move around the classroom. Throughout the exercise, Crum and Amato instruct the students to keep their arms and legs active and to use the space all around them.
“We focus more on [teaching] creative movement of exploring pathways, different ways of using our bodies to travel, those sorts of things,” says Crum regarding the type of dance that the students are learning. “[The warm up] that we do at the beginning of every class … has some combinations of jazz and hip-hop and even modern and contemporary.”
The previous week, Crum and Amato taught the students the step-drag, which they revisit during the lesson. To build off that movement, this week the students learn how to do the Charleston, which Amato explains was a popular dance move that emerged with the rise of jazz music during the Harlem Renaissance. They break down the movement into separate parts for the students and then practice it through repetition while giving continuous verbal cues.
Poetry in motion
To ultimately tie together the lessons learned about the Harlem Renaissance with dance, each group of students at the four schools has been assigned a poem written during the time period. They are now working to create choreography that coincides with their interpretation of that poem. At Eastside, the students are given “Good Morning” by Langston Hughes. They split up into smaller groups and are each assigned a few lines from the poem. Within those lines, each group works together to find words that emphasize motion and action while creating movements to represent them. Afterward, the poem is read line by line while each group presents the movements they chose.
Ultimately, this exercise not only allows these students to explore their creativity by connecting movements to poetry but also it provides them with physical enrichment.
In the coming weeks, the students will practice and memorize these movements. At the program’s conclusion, students at all four schools will showcase what they have learned at a public performance at JL Mann High School on Friday, Dec. 2, at 6 p.m. Each school will perform their poem-inspired routine separately, and then all the students will go on stage together to do their warm-up routine. There will be a reception afterward to celebrate the students’ accomplishments.
Crum and Amato hope that, in addition to families and teachers, members of the community will also attend the performance.
“This project is a way to help other people see the power of dance and the impact of the arts, not just on people who have disabilities but on all lives. Our goal and mission is to reach all people through dance,” says Crum. “We want dance and what we’re doing in the city to be known.”