By Shelese Douglas, EdD, Arts Integration & Dance Specialist at Fremont/Lopez Elementary

A “Dance, Care, Share” event happens when a catchy song, “When You’re Smiling” (the Leftover Cuties version), gets rooted in your brain and later spills out of your body in the form of a dance that is shared with nearly 300 kindergarten through second grade students…. or something like that! This event — part performance, part fall family festival, part pep rally — was inspired by an effort to support our school’s behavior intervention program. Originally, I was looking for a fun way to encourage kids to take care of each other. I felt that a little bit of dance, music, and fun could help our young people learn to connect with their classmates while giving older youth an opportunity to use leadership skills and foster empathy.

Last year, I held this community dance event as a “pilot” experience to help introduce the brain dance to our students and teachers. A brain dance typically organizes movement by body-half/body-sides and engages cross-lateral movements to stimulate neural development.   However, this year we decided to add a new twist by including a theme (fall) and expanding the activities. Jermane Roberts, one of the teachers on our rock-star kindergarten team suggested, “We should invite parents!” I’m pretty sure that comment was initially met with my poker face. Arranging the logistics of a parent audience at an outside event during the school day seemed daunting to me. Still, my instinct to “lean in” to the challenge encouraged me to mull over this new option.

After checking in with our principal and administrative team, we were given the “okay” to hold the event and a date on the calendar. From that point on, ideas began bubbling out from students and teachers! The kindergarten, first, and second grade classes each selected a fall color to wear at the event and activities were linked to all things autumn. Apples, pumpkins, falling leaves, and more fall-themed phenomena were exciting to our younger students, who were learning about these things in their classes. With a parent audience in mind, there was definitely more pressure to stage a performance, yet that really wasn’t the original intention of the experience.

Along with my dance assist, Miss LaShanda, we began brainstorming ways to extend this experience so that our older students could take ownership in an event that was more interactive, entertaining, and encouraged kids to take care of kids. My intermediate dance groups began creating fall themed decorations (i.e. candy corn garland, construction paper leaves, etc.) while the advanced dancers learned how to cut and measure fabric to design their own costumes. Tutus were selected as the official costume of the advanced dance groups — in fall colors, of course!  Each dance class level was responsible for an instructional team, a subset of the original class that would take on the primary responsibility of teaching the dance to our younger students.

Our twice weekly classes were filled with lots of activity. Before we invited our younger students to join us to learn the dance in our dance room, the older students reflected on who they cared most about or what mattered most to them right now; Miss LaShanda asked the older students to write their thoughts on a construction paper leaf. One of my advanced dancers shared, “I care about my family,” and another student from my intermediate group shared, “I care about my family because they help me with things and are always there for me.” I asked the student teaching team to reflect on what matters to them so that they could ask similar questions of our younger dancers. I also used this opportunity as a check-in to see if our students understood why we were holding this event.

In one week, 10 kindergarten through second grade classes joined our older students to learn our short two-minute dance. Primary dancers were partnered with a “big kid” to help them learn, and each older student was responsible for teaching their new partner the dance. In the class, younger students were asked what they noticed about the dance as they were learning it. A second grade student noted, “basketball jumps were amazing!” I often gave movements nicknames or visual images to help students memorize the dance. Needless to say, the dance room was amazingly loud, busy, and joyful!

The following week, student instructional teams (a group of 2-3 of my older students) were sent to the younger classrooms to help the little ones review and practice the dance. Mrs. Campos spoke highly of her student instructional team, noting that they asked her if there were any Spanish speaking students that might want extra attention. I have to admit, my heart did a little leap on hearing that news! I couldn’t put it into words then, but it seemed like students were able to connect to a sense of empathy and redirect that into action.

While the instructional teams were busy with their tasks, we also sent out a team of “kid reporters” to conduct interviews on the kindergarten playground. Our kid reporters (older students) wanted to find out what mattered most to our youngest students. A kindergarten student said, “I care about my grandma.” Another kindergartener also shared, “I care about my family.” Our reporting team helped younger students write their responses on a leaf and a few classes had the opportunity to respond to the questions in their individual classrooms. The leaves were shared out on our tree mural for parents, teachers, and others to read.

One of my advanced dance students, who is one of five siblings, demonstrated what mattered most to him. Though just 12 years old, this student frequently takes care of three of his younger brothers and sisters, in addition to a baby cousin. During the event, this student sought out his youngest sister, a first grader, to be his dance partner. She was thrilled to perform with her older brother and the rest of the big kids!  Dancing gives him a chance to be a kid while still leading his siblings. He is one of my most focused, committed, and skilled dancers, and he is on our traveling dance team.

It took a little over four weeks (not counting a desperately needed fall break in early October!) to teach my older students the dance and prepare for the event. Finally, the event day arrived and our student “tech crew” set up our kindergarten playground for activities. Parents were invited and encouraged to bring their lawn chair — I hoped this move would eliminate the need for a massive chair arrangement set-up by our custodians. Every grade level had a chance to perform the short dance for their parents and with a classmate or older student as their partner.  Between each dance showing, there was an opportunity for our parent and student community to participate in a fun activity. Second graders participated in our pumpkin relays, while kindergarteners, along with their older dance partner, jumped in our “minute-to-win-it” balloon game.

Fortunately, beautiful, dry, and sunny fall weather framed this event! Our parents enjoyed the experience, and students reflected on the impact of dancing with others. One of my advanced dancers reflected:

The most memorable thing at Dance, Care, Share was getting to dance with the little kids and hearing their parents congratulate them. Like a boy’s mom said, “Aww, you look so cute dancing. You dance really good!” To me, that was a special moment because the boy’s dancing made his mom proud of him.

There is no way to completely tell what each student may have gained from dancing at this event. However, any moment our students engage in building better relationships, communication, and collaboration skills while learning how to care about themselves, others, and the world around them is likely to resonate with them well into the future. In this case, dancing was the vehicle to allow all of our learners the space to embrace what makes us all human.