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Leeds Elementary School students cut a rug in class

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NORTHAMPTON — After lunch on a recent Wednesday at Leeds Elementary School, students in Andrew Foster’s fourth-grade classroom were split into several groups, dancing in circles.

One group of about six students huddled around a Maya Angelou poem, “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” reading the lines: “Tough guys fight/All alone at night/Life doesn’t frighten me at all.”

The circle of fourth-graders then brainstormed how to draw inspiration from the poem for the choreography they were working on, with help from several older students from Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, or PVPA.

The visit was part of the Dance Education Laboratory program in collaboration with PVPA, now in its eighth year at Leeds. For about three weeks, roughly 30 PVPA students have come to Leeds classrooms to teach dance to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students at the school. 

The Dance Education Laboratory is a specific teaching-training model that was started in New York City at the 92nd Street Y in 1995. 

Nel Shelby, a filmmaker who made “PS DANCE!,” a well-received documentary about dance education in New York City public schools, is now making a documentary film about the program at Leeds that she hopes to release in the spring. 

Ann Biddle, one of the co-founders of the model, is currently directing the PVPA program at the school. She brought the initiative to Leeds when her own son, Yoshi Sanders, was a student there.

“I wanted to bring dance education to the school because there wasn’t any,” she said.

“Basically, if you can walk, you can dance,” said Sanders, who’s now a PVPA student teaching at Leeds. 

Formally, there’s no dance program in the elementary schools, said Roxanne Nieman, a fifth-grade teacher at Leeds who is helping to coordinate the project and prevsiouly performed in a modern dance company for eight years.

“Often kids take after-school lessons or private lessons, but this is in class, during school,” she said. “The idea is that it’s integrated.”

The program often gets students who aren’t initially interested in dance enthusiastically involved, she added: “They get up there, and they steal the show —  every year that happens.”

Fourth-grade Leeds student Roman Voyevidka hadn’t danced much before he went through the program last year and said he enjoys it now. It’s also a welcome change from the average school day, he added: “You don’t need to sit in a desk and work on a pile of papers.”

His classmate Breana Barber, who has been dancing since she was 3, also said the program helps use up some of her energy. “PVPA is a big opportunity for us to get up and move around,” she said. 

PVPA students are trained to teach dance to the younger students, and during the process, they learn leadership skills, Biddle said: “There’s a strong mentoring component.”

Fourth- and fifth-grade students will perform their hip-hop and modern-dance-inspired routines, for the public at 1 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24 in the Leeds school cafeteria. 

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com



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