Day 1 with Strathcona 7s
Strathcona Elementary stands out amidst the quiet serenity of Vancouver’s East Side and Chinatown districts. A veritable oasis of paved and gravel playgrounds surrounded by brick and stone classroom structures, some dating back to the middle of last century, the school serves as sanctum to a myriad of children and pre-teens from the surrounding neighbourhoods.
“It’s a tough area to live and grow up in”, many teachers will tell me. Whether I’m teaching in the open expanses of new schools in Surrey, or the slightly more dated ones in Richmond, most every teacher has heard of, or knows something about teaching at, Strathcona.
I too have stories to share. I just finished 10 weeks of teaching grade 5′s how to dance Cha Cha and Jive. Yep, grade 5′s. “Ewwww, I don’t want to hold hands with a boy!”, is the usual fare. Today, I started a new dance unit. This time, it’s the gr 7′s turn. Already, one girl offered me a bribe if she could be exempt from having to put hands-to-hands in the course of her dance unit. No thanks, I said. This was followed by numerous suggestions on how I could turn Ballroom Dancing into a touch-free affair — not unlike those car washes that boast “no touch, no scratch” and, subsequently, “not clean”. No, Ballroom Dancing is nothing if not about touching, communicating, leading, following, hand to hand, partner to partner, beat to beat.
Day 1 with the grade 7′s. First class. There are 2 boys for every girl. One boy from First Nations heritage shows interest at first, but his eyes quickly glaze over as the lesson progresses. Could be a challenge keeping him engaged. Another, a boy of Asian descent (the predominant ethnicity in the group), glares at me, watching my every move. When he speaks, his speech is forced, like he’s riled up, verging on aggression. Will he be ‘oppositionally defiant’? Passive-aggressive? Is he an ‘alpha male’? All remains to be seen. That’s the challenge of teaching Ballroom Dancing in curricular PE.
The reward in teaching it comes in the changes these 25, and the other 80 or so, kids will experience in the coming weeks. Lesson 1 is all about breaking down stereotypes (fears), forging trust between instructor (me) and student (each of them), and assessing the level of receptiveness I’ll be getting.
I start with a follow-the-leader dance. Something fun, funky and upbeat. A little bit of marching, clapping on the up-beat, skipping, jogging, high hands, cheerleader kicks, “go-go” arms, hopping, maybe a chasse or grapevine. All the time, adding difficulty to every element.
Then, a few moments of explanation. Who’s going to have problems, and why do I say this? How is ‘locomotor learning’ different from ‘cognitive learning’? Why do some pick it up right away, while others take time to process the thought? I take a moment to spotlight 1 or 2, especially if they’ve been negligent in their attentiveness, or inadequate in their participation. Why? Not to embarrass them (although they are, embarrassed, that is). No, instead it’s to point out that locomotor learning requires all your faculties in order to succeed.
“You can’t just KNOW how to dance. You have to see it, think it, feel it, and DO it.”
I’ll give them tools — drills, techniques, pnemonics — to help them succeed in their learning. They’ll feel anxiety. It’s normal to feel this. They’ve got to accept it, then push on and get passed it. “If you’re not pushed to the edge of your comfort zone, you will not grow in your learning.”
Then comes the dance lesson. Eurythmics, first. Bim-boom-BAH. Step, step, step. Three steps to 4 beats, done while clapping the up-beat, 2 to the bar. Where are the problems going to occur? Weight changes. Or, to be accurate, the absence of a weight change. How to solve it? Awareness and repitition, for sure. Ultimately, a modified Orph-Kodaly technique works wonders. “Let your mouth teach your feet to dance,” I tell them. Almost to a person, it works.
Stepping patterns, second. Put another way, this part is about “dance steps”. In this lesson, it’s the Basic Step. The Forward Basic, and the Back Basic. If they’re quick and attentive, then I’ll add a Right and a Left Turn element. No partners, yet. Just stay in your lines and feel your feet move. Your legs move. Your body move. Inevitably, 3 or 4 students will start missing weight changes. I point it out, make them count the O-K method, and the problem’s solved. Today, I had to stretch the exercise by requiring them to walk the pattern while increasing width of steps. There. That solved the problem of absent weight changes. Everyone got it — 100 per cent pass rate. Kudos to them. There’ll be more kudos to come, and more challenges, too.