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Photos by Sydney Cromwell.
Students learn about movement, choreography and a variety of dance styles in the Trace Crossings dance lab.
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Michelle Knutson leads second- and third-grade students in the Trace Crossings dance lab.
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Students use a barre for balance while following dance instructions.
At Trace Crossings Elementary, about 170 kids have a little extra moving and shaking in their day thanks to the school’s new dance lab.
The dance lab is the product of a $25,000 Alabama Arts Education Initiative grant, which physical education aide Michelle Knutson and art teacher Adriana Northcutt applied for and won in January 2016. The grant is used for three purposes: professional development, student exposure to the arts and the dance lab.
The program began at the end of January of this year. Knutson, a former dance major at the University of Alabama and founder of the Sanspointe Dance Company, said the grant enables Trace Crossings to bring in professional dancers and dance companies to perform and talk to students about all the elements — such as lights, sound and choreography — that go into a performance.
“We want to expose our students to what professional dance looks like,” Knutson said, who lives in Green Valley and has taught at Trace Crossings since 2008. “There’s nothing like live performance.”
The school also has a group of teachers designated as the Moving Arts Faculty team “to connect curriculum and movement,” who attend training on incorporating dance with math, science, history and language and then bring that training back to share with the rest of the faculty.
However, the morning dance lab class might be the most visible part of Trace Crossings’ use of the grant. Each morning from 7:45 to 8:30 a.m., Knutson leads students through a variety of dance, including routines, a ballet barre and free movement around their studio space. There’s plenty of giggling and excitement from the students as they get the chance to be creative and have an outlet for their energy.
“I love it. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the morning,” Knutson said.
Of the students who signed up, the K-3 participants have dance lab once a week for five weeks, while fourth-graders have the weekly class for 10 weeks through April 14. This gives Knutson the chance to teach the older students more about “using space, time and energy” and even to try a little choreography.
Dance lab includes elements of ballet, folk, modern and hip-hop dance styles. The school created a studio next to the gym with mirrors on the wall and ballet barres, and within that studio, Knutson said she tries to foster an atmosphere of creativity, leadership, experimentation and open minds.
She said she was surprised — and delighted — to find that at least a few boys in each grade signed up for the class.
“We can create a space where students feel like this is something unique and special,” Knutson said.
While it’s fun, the dance lab is still about learning. As students leap across the studio, Knutson teaches them terms like “grand jete,” and math is an integral part of understanding choreography.
“At the heart of what it is, we try to connect math, science and language arts in the studio space,” Knutson said.
In the first two weeks of the program, Knutson said she already had heard from a first-grade teacher that her dance lab students come to their first class of the day more settled and focused.
“They had moved all their energy out and were ready to settle in and work,” Knutson said. “It benefits those who are natural movers.”
Dance lab also gives students a chance to build confidence and see themselves as successful in a less academic setting, she said.
“They can look in a mirror and see themselves and be proud of what they’re seeing,” she said.
Knutson said she hopes to continue the dance lab with the grant next year, though there are details of the schedule to work out.
“If one student really finds a connection and finds success … that’s what we’re here to do,” Knutson said. “We’re here to start their morning moving and creating and building community.”