In dance, rhythm, timing and movement are everything. If you combine these elements in the right ways, you can feel, you can express untold emotions and meanings, you can soar.
That is today's lesson in the fine arts class at Bingham High taught by Helen Hooper and Christie Clayburn. Today the students are learning about dance, and dance instructors Nicole Lewis and Aubrey Riggan explain the basics and lead the class through various exercises that reinforce the importance of rhythm and movement.Students move to the beat of a drum. They tap out tempos with tambourines. They sit cross-legged on the floor and move their knees up and down like butterflies. They wave strips of fabric, creating swirls and curlicues. They get together in groups and use their fabric strips and their bodies to create interesting shapes. They sit in a circle and pass "the shakes" around. They go fast, they go slow, they freeze, they melt. They learn the wonder of dance - and they laugh, they smile, they enjoy.
But this is not just an ordinary dance class. In fact, it may be different from any dance class at any high school in the state. Nicole and Aubrey are seniors in the dance program at Bingham, and the kids they teach are special education students at the school. It is a class where students who have special aptitude in the arts serve as peer tutors for those who have had very limited experience in those areas.
Other schools have peer tutoring programs, says Julie Christofferson, assistant principal at Bingham, who was instrumental in getting the program started. But as far as they know this is the only one that works specifically with the arts. This is the third year for the class; the first two years were funded by a grant from the Utah Arts Council. This year they are working under a grant from Art Access/Very Special Arts Utah.
"I have strong feelings about the value of arts in education," Christofferson said. "We develop our bodies and we develop our intellects. We need to develop our souls as well. The arts do that."
And sometimes that gets overlooked for the special education kids, says Hooper, who is the special education team leader at Bingham. "We do so much with academics. But the arts make for well-rounded students. They are about the beauty of life."
And so, in this very special class, which meets for 90 minutes every other day, the focus is totally on the arts.
The first quarter they studied music, including both singing and instrumental music, Hooper explains. "The second quarter was drama - both acting and how to be an appreciative audience. Now we're doing dance. Next quarter will be graphic arts and photography."
The class gives the students a wide variety of experience with arts on a level where they can actually get involved. In addition to the special education kids, the class includes other peer tutors and some other students who act as examples, to help demonstrate the concepts the instructors are presenting. It's almost a one-on-one situation.
"We have enough encouragement and supervision to make it successful," Hooper said.
"Take Dustin, for example," she said, indicating one of the students. "Dustin wouldn't be able to be in a dance class. But this gives him a great experience with the art."
Two different dance students work with the class each time, so a total of about 12 to 14 get involved, Hooper says. Maybe 50 peer tutors in all work with the special education students.
And it is hard to say who is having a better time, the tutors or the students. The energy flows both ways, Christofferson says. The tutors have to do lesson plans and plan activities.
"They are very well-prepared. Many of them are students who are thinking about becoming teachers. As educators we all know the satisfaction that comes from helping others. These kids are learning that, too."
Dance instructor Aubrey Riggan is one who has learned that lesson. Aubrey, who would like to eventually go into dance therapy, loves the teaching experience she has had in the arts class. "It's a great feeling when you see that they understand what you're trying to teach, when you see them pick up the concept, when they smile."
Holly Stevens, a tutor, hopes to major in special education in college. She loves working with the students at Bingham. "They are always so positive and so happy. They help me realize how many things I take for granted." Sometimes, she says, she gets in a complaining mood. "And then I come here. It's fun. It's lively and exciting, and it makes me realize how much I have."
"I love to see the creativity, their ability to explore movement," added Nicole, who would like to make a career of dance. "I love the expression of dance, how you can portray a story through movement, the feeling of success you get when you transfer that feeling to the audience."
And, she says, dance helps you in so many other areas. "The confidence you experience carries over to other areas. I've learned so much about myself through dance. Dance is not just a physical art; it's an art of the mind, too."
Those are lessons and feelings that Helen Hooper hopes her students can experience. So far, she says, the dance unit has brought a lot of enjoyment.
Jeff, for example, who likes drama and found he was very good at impressions of cartoon characters, is finding new things to like about dance. "I liked moving to the music," he said. Candace, too, thought it as "pretty cool. I liked the groups and the different shapes we made. I got creative ideas." Dusty liked "all of it. I like all music. I like drama." And, she said, "I get to make new friends. That's fun."
It used to be that special education students were isolated, their program pretty much self-contained. Now, it doesn't happen that way, Hooper says. "These kids are just as much a part of the student body, are just as much Bingham Miners as anyone else." And she credits the peer tutoring program for a lot of that. "They don't just teach. They take our kids to the junior prom, they take them to plays or bowling. They speak to each other in the halls.
"Our students," she said, "take part in everything students do."
And, she says, they do seem to find extra joy in the arts. "What is it that they say about how you may forget a fact, but you never forget how people make you feel. That's so true for these kids. They may forget some of the facts or the terminology, but they will never forget how the dance or the music makes them feel."
In the arts class at Bingham High, students and tutors alike are exploring rhythm and tempo. They are learning the importance of timing. They are learning the give and take that comes, not only with the art of dance but also with the the dance of life.