BEAVERTON — Three students sliced the air with precise kicks. Several girls twirled while a boy’s arms flailed then flopped.
It was just before 10 a.m. in the parish hall across from St. Cecilia School, and eighth-graders were moving their bodies, giggling — and studying genetics.
The five-day program, entitled “Making Science Dance,” used the power of kinesthetic learning to help children in all grades better grasp scientific concepts, learn movement techniques, feel more comfortable in their bodies and support one another.
“Learning sticks” when it is acquired “in a way that is meaningful to students, in a way they enjoy,” said Sue Harris, St. Cecilia principal. Studies also show that engaging the body helps engage the mind.
The program, held at St. Cecilia last month, is the fruit of a partnership between Young Audiences of Oregon and Southwest Washington, which promotes learning through the arts, and BodyVox, the award-winning Portland dance company blending contemporary dance, theater and film. Young Audiences offers schools a roster of teaching artists, including from BodyVox, for residencies, workshops and performances.
Nicole McCall, a BodyVox teaching artist and St. Cecilia parent, led the program at the parish school. Students in kindergarten through second grade participated in “Making Plants Dance,” and third- through fifth-graders were “Making the Solar System Dance.” Middle schoolers learned the fun of “Making Physics Dance.” All classes were tied to the students’ curriculum and culminated with an “informance,” attended by parents and teachers.
McCall, founder of Dance Your Heart Out studio here, is a seasoned dancer and teacher of ballet, jazz, tap and modern dance.
Harris said when she decided to invite a BodyVox teaching artist to the school, she had “no idea Nicole worked for the company.”
But it was a “beautiful” coincidence, she said. “Since (McCall) knows and loves the school community, it was easy for her to talk to teachers about what would work best.”
On the recent morning in the parish hall, McCall constantly was moving and attuned to the students’ abilities and engagement.
“How do you show increasing amounts of energy?” McCall asked the middle schoolers. Increasing range of motion with kicks was one option.
Since the students were learning about genetics, McCall discussed dominant and recessive genes and DNA, “which itself is choreography,” said the mother of a kindergartner and fifth-grader.
Students also were asked to reflect on their heritage and to use family history as inspiration for their movement.
Though McCall grounds the program in science curriculum, she meets the children “where they are developmentally” and is flexible and adaptable.
Sometimes the focus shifted to helping students “be more comfortable in their own bodies,” she said. “I like to tell eighth-graders, in particular: ‘The quickest way to fail at dance is to try to look good. The moment you let it all go and just have fun and you dance with abandon and dance silly, that’s when it looks good and interesting.”
McCall turned to the St. Cecilia’s theme for the year — Opening Our Hearts to All — to help draw students out of their comfort zones and connect with each other in new ways.
For example, she asked eighth-graders to partner with people they might not usually work with.
“Making Science Dance” came to the school as part of LEAP, St. Cecilia’s Learning Enrichment in the Arts Program. LEAP was funded by the school auction, and, thanks to the generosity of school families, will support about three programs a year for the next several years, said Harris.
According to eighth-graders Emily Brown and Luke Horne, the recent combination of science and movement was a hit.
“It was really cool to express our heritage through motion,” said Horne.
“It was much better than sitting at a desk,” added Brown. “And we got to get our brains moving with our bodies.” For that she’s especially grateful, she said, “because we are 13 and 14, and we have a lot of energy.”