Clifton Park

SPAC brings music of Motown to Shen students

The performing arts center resident artist spent eight weeks rehearsing with elementary school youngsters
Dennis Moench
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Dennis Moench

CLIFTON PARK — Students in Shenendehowa Central School District’s Chango Elementary School spent an afternoon this past week dancing with professional performers from the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

For eight weeks, the fifth-grade students have been participating in weekly lessons lead by former Broadway star Dennis Moench, who is now SPAC’s senior director of education.  

As part of the program, students learned Broadway-style jazz dance, inspired by the music and choreography of 1960s Motown. The weekly classes culminated in Wednesday’s performance for their peers, teachers and parents.

More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 2-8, 2019

The approximately 80 fifth-grade students who participated in the program were divided into four groups, each tasked with learning a different dance routine.

Prior to their dance routines, students shared with audience members trivia facts about lesser-known Motown background singers, composers and choreographers. After, they danced through the elementary school’s gym to music performed by local musicians Elizabeth Kasius and Brian Melick.

This is the first time the SPAC’s public school dance residency was hosted at a Shen school. The SPAC dance residency program itself, which focuses on a different theme each year, has brought instructors with Broadway resumes to a district once a year for eight week periods since 2016.

 Working with students, especially young students, is important because younger years are a crucial time in which students can be introduced to arts they might not have been involved with previously. Primarily, the residency has the potential to show students that dance is an art that is not gender restrictive, and in which everyone can participate.

Early access to arts in public school is also important because not every student, especially in district as large as Shen, Moench said, has access to the financial resources that would allow them to participate.

“They’re willing to do anything. The amount that they learn in a short amount of time is amazing,” Moench said after Wednesday’s performance, adding that if he had not started singing as a kid, he might not have become a Broadway performer.

Some students had lead roles in their group performances, though all of the dancers needed some skills to keep their place in the routines.

Moench at one point asked the dancers about the crucial aspects of putting together a routine.

“You need counting,” answered fifth-grader Willa Coleman, as she danced to the beat of a song by The Supremes.

Karin Skarka, principal of Chango Elementary, spearheaded the effort to bring the SPAC residency to the school. The school’s Parent Teacher Association also played a role.

Skarka wanted to bring an outside opportunity for students to explore activities in the arts that they might not have had access to otherwise, she said. They also wanted a program that would go further than a one-time performance or class.

“I wanted to have some sort of activity that they would always remember that they did together,” Skarka said. She plans to interview the outgoing fifth-graders to gauge whether the program was a success, and that information will be used to choose future activities at Chango.

And, Moench added, successfully pulling off a dance routine in front of their peers could give students the push they need to strive for success, even if traditional academics are not their strength.

“It does so much for them. It could change their lives,” Moench said.

More from this week: Our top stories Feb. 2-8, 2019

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