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Dance lessons teach Monaco students about science

By Emily Dougherty

    COMMERCE CITY – Have you ever tried to spell the word “chrysalis” using only your body?
    Around 90 first-and second-graders from Monaco Elementary did just that Nov. 17 in a culminating performance from a two-month long stint with the dance company Ballet Nouveau Colorado.
    The kids summoned their inner stink bugs, praying mantis and roly poly for their production as part of the BNC’s Title 1 Elementary Partnership program, which brings yearlong art experiences to kids who might not otherwise get certain creative chances.

    During the performance, Monaco students illustrated the parts and life cycles of different insects, such as wings, compound eyes, antennae, and provascus. They also learned such words as exoskeleton and mandible.
    “They spelled eyes with their eyes, thorax with their thorax and head with their head,” said Michelle Vagi, BNC ballet teacher and community instructor for BNC’s partnership program.
    This was the second year of BNC’s two-year partnership with Monaco.
    In addition to the professional dance company, BNC is also home to a school and multiple community programs aimed at sharing an artful experience.
    According to Julia Wilkinson Manley, BNC school director, Monaco was focusing a lot of minutes to improving test scores in math and reading. Therefore, not much time was being spent on implementing a science curriculum.
    That’s where BNC stepped in to help reinforce science lessons through kinesthetic learning.
    BNC is a non-profit organization founded in 1992 to fill a need for quality ballet training and educational dance programs in Denver’s north metro communities.
    According to Wilkinson Manley, since 1999, the organization has worked hand in hand with the National Guild for Community Arts Education to create these educational programs.
    Wilkinson Manley has worked with BNC since 2002. She came in as an educator after touring as a professional dancer and choreographer. This is her 10th season as the director for the community partnership. She developed the program BNC currently uses based on the best practices of previous ones. The new program rolled out in 2003.
    Through the Title I Elementary Partnership, BNC works with thousands of individuals each year across Adams, Broomfield, Jefferson, Boulder and Denver counties.
    More than 80 percent of the students in their partnership schools fall below the federal poverty line. Up to 25 percent are classified as homeless.
    Wilkinson Manley said they conduct four, two-year partnerships every year. The partnerships last for six-eight sessions, which can often mean around a month to two months in the schools.
    According to Wilkinson Manley, BNC instructors are already dedicated to working with Monaco for a third year.
    With Monaco, the team started out meeting with Principal Kevin Greeley, school administrators and faculty to determine curricular goals in addition to teaching lessons pertaining to science.
    “We try to reinforce those goals through dance,” Wilkinson Manley said.
    She added that they also worked on community building at Monaco, which, like many other schools in the Denver Metro Area, struggles with discrimination.
    This year, BNC is also working with Pinnacle Charter School in Denver, Rocky Mountain Elementary School in Westminster, and Stukey Elementary School in Northglenn.
    In their first few lessons with Monaco, Wilkinson Manley and Vagi focused on balance and motion. The team used state standards in vocabulary and science to build their curriculum.
    “We’re using dance to help them understand the concepts,” Wilkinson Manley said. “It’s less about certain dance forms and more about finding the extremes in movement.”
    The curriculum allows kids to explore their own bounds, she said.
    Monaco students had their lessons during P.E. class.
    After six weeks of work, the students were ready to show off what they learned.
    “This has been a really fascinating experience,” said Wilkinson Manley. “As soon as the kids got on stage, it was a 180-degree difference.”
    She often sees students respond unenthusiastically or be super resistant. At Monaco, she noticed students were already highly mobile.
    “They weren’t afraid to do funny or weird movements,” she said. “The program has been highly impactful. It’s evident in how many kids showed up tonight.”
    In her experience, the biggest challenge students have to overcome is their need to verbalize.
    “We’ve gotten really good at the program,” Wilkinson Manley said. “It’s becoming deeper and deeper and more challenging for us, the students and the teachers.”
    She added that the BNC instructors are always aware of not stealing time away from teachers. Wilkinson Manley said they also hope the kinesthetic program impacts the teachers they work with to see how they can translate lessons through artistic methods.
    “So many beautiful things come out of this program,” she said. “I love to see students embrace something I hold so dear.”
    “It was really exciting to see students actively engaged and having fun while learning science content,” Greeley said of the performance..
    He noted that kinesthetic learning works really well with second language learners, which accounts for a considerable population at Monaco.
    “Kinesthetic learning is already something teachers employ fairly regularly in the classroom. So this felt really natural and good for our students to be doing. It tied in with our wellness initiative while still teaching content that they have to be responsible for in school,” Greeley said.
    Greeley added that the BNC partnership gave his students an awareness of the world around them.
    “It showed them how these really small creatures have really powerful attributes,” he said. “It’s a way for them to learn about their world in a way that they can interact with.”
    Besides the few months of classes, BNC offers their partnership schools a chance to see their professional dance perform. In April, they will bus 300 third, fourth and fifth graders to BNC for a show.
    By far, one of the coolest things for Wilkinson Manley and other members of BNC is the part of the partnership where they offer students scholarships to their ballet school.
    In the school, students will start out with a ballet class specially designed for partnership students once a week. After building a foundation, students are dispersed into the regular school.
    “They could be creating a career, a pathway to college, a whole new life,” Wilkinson Manley said.
    After the performance Nov. 17, BNC offered 20 Monaco Elementary students scholarships.
    “We’ve given out 15 scholarships total in the past 10 years,” Wilkinson Manley said. “So for us to be offering 20 at one school is monumental.”
    For information on Ballet Nouveau Colorado and its community programs, visit www.bncdance.com.