Children at Hidden Lake Elementary School dance together while learning a routine from Patti Rutland Jazz Dance instructor Lauren Hart on Thursday.

One, two, three and four. Slide, step, pivot and turn.

Counting steps, memorizing routines and understanding simple-but-intentional body movements can help young kids learn essential developmental skills and improve their psyche. That’s the premise behind the long-standing partnership between Dothan City Schools and Patti Rutland Jazz.

Once or twice a week, kindergarten through sixth-grade students learn to wiggle their little bodies from Patti Rutland’s dance instructors during their scheduled physical-education time.

“A lot of times, we just kind of assume that every kid knows how to skip, hop and march and clap their hands at the same time, but they may not,” said Veronica Irvin, principal dancer and instructor at Patti Rutland Jazz. “I teach them those things in dance class, and I really teach them how to separate hand and feet movements, clap to the beat, or clap and stomp to the beat, and then we go beyond the basic metronome and play music, and then they have to really search for the beat.”

Getting started

Irvin, who teaches classes at Highlands Elementary and Hidden Lake Primary schools, said her lessons start with a dance warmup with various types of music and stretch exercises before moving to activities.

Last week, for example, Irvin had students partner up to create four dance steps on their own before holding a small competition and then allowing the best team to perform the short routine in front of their classmates.

“They’re really challenging themselves on how to think and move their bodies the way they want it to happen,” Irvin said. “So we start really simple and then it gets harder. They’re challenged more.”

Billy Richards, director of outreach for Patti Rutland Jazz, visits the school to make sure the quality of instruction is high and to make sure the lessons are satisfying the physical education curriculum for their respective grade levels.

The activities help students with motor and locomotive skills like coordination, balance, sliding and jumping, while helping to build muscular strength — all things that would help a student pursue a career as an athlete — while also satisfying requirements from the Alabama course of study guidelines for physical education.

The partnership with Dothan City Schools has evolved over the 12 years since it started, and Patti Rutland Jazz continues to collaborate with the district when standards evolve.

This past year, Hidden Lake Primary and Beverlye Intermediate schools introduced their signature arts theme, which is woven into all aspects of the school.

“What we try to do is engage students in a creative learning environment,” Hidden Lake Principal Vanessa Gunn said. “We teach content standards continuously throughout students’ learning experience daily. We provide education in visual arts, dance, drama and creative writing. What we try to do is identify the needs of each student and align the educational experiences with those individual needs.”

Built on the arts

Because the arts plays a larger role in Hidden Lake and Beverlye’s curriculum, lessons are taught twice a week in 45-minute increments by various dance instructors who have different styles and approaches.

“What we’re trying to do with our signature is to provide children with the knowledge they need to enhance essential life skills like teamwork and cooperation,” Gunn said. “Dance is also an instructional strategy. It promotes retention. Sometimes when you can put a body movement with a skill being taught, it promotes that retention.”

Students learn routines that they can perform for large audiences at the end of the semester, which helps build self-confidence and social skills, according to Gunn.

The model has proved successful, and now the dance company fields requests from surrounding districts to bring the program to their schools. Now, the program teaches students at Webb, Rehobeth and Troy Elementary schools, Head Start, and Dothan’s Vaughn-Bloomberg Center.

Because of its nonprofit status, it depends on grants from the Alabama Arts Council, individual donors, corporate sponsorship and a financial partnership with the school system.

Christina Hicks, executive director for Patti Rutland Jazz, hopes the BEYONDance program continues to bear fruit and expand their reach in the future in a country where arts in education is slowly declining.

“Everything we have done has been a slow burn, growing into what we’re doing now,” she said.

The company has three tiers: its outreach program, internal dance classes and professional dance performances.

“It’s all connected,” she said. “It all goes into the making to bring awareness to dance and the arts and in bringing arts to the community.”

Only opportunity

Many students get what could be their only exposure to dance with this program.

“That’s what most rewarding for me is giving students that opportunity when they might not get any other extracurricular in that week,” Irvin said.

The $30,000 contract with Patti Rutland has been praised by school board members and Superintendent Phyllis Edwards as a valuable partnership.

“Students thrive when they are offered opportunities outside of the core subjects,” Edwards said in a statement. “Dance is good for the brain and the body. Students are engaged, enjoy school and learn cooperation and personal discipline. We are pleased to partner with PRJ!”

Students at Hidden Lake and Beverlye will have individual showcases and join other elementary schoolchildren for a citywide recital in February.

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