Hay students showcase Latin dance at Changing Worlds banquet

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Students from John Hay Elementary Community Academy showcased their new, Latin dancing talents last Wednesday at a banquet held to commemorate a local arts and literacy organization.

Children ranging from fifth to eighth grades danced the salsa, bachata and cha-cha-cha at the Changing Worlds banquet dinner, hosted by ABC 7’s Alan Krashesky.

Founded in 1996, Changing Worlds implements in-school and after-school programs to educate students about different cultures through art and writing, said founder Kay Berkson.

Berkson said in-school programs may include something as simple as show and tell, but students are required to journal about their experiences to gain a handle on expressing their thoughts in a productive way.

Hay offered a few of the after-school programs this year, including the Latin dance classes and a theater performance class.

At first, students didn’t respond well to learning about different types of Latin dance styles twice a week after school, even though they signed up for the optional class, said Nikki Smith, a dance instructor for Changing Worlds.

“All they were talking about was hip-hop,” Smith said. “They didn’t really see what the importance was of learning about Latin music and dance.”

Students slowly dropped from the class, but seven remained, and Smith said they not only learned to “embrace” the dance and culture but also develop different skills.

“I saw a lot of them come of their shell,” Smith said. “I saw some who were closed-up, reserved … those are some of my leaders.”

Smith said she had her students both journal and brainstorm about choreography in small groups to inspire leadership and cooperation abilities. They also conducted peer critiques, where students would perform a routine in front of the class then get constructive criticism.

She said the program not only opens students’ eyes to other cultures, but helps them hone in cooperation skills that they’ll need “for the rest of their lives.”

Abby Schwarz, another Changing Worlds teaching artist, helped run a theater-based, after-school program at Hay. The students put on two live productions and are currently working on a third.

The program was similar to Smith’s in its concept: Theater was the core of the program, with students helping write scripts to gain communication skills and coming up with the themes for all three productions. Schwarz said she was just there to lead them in the right direction.

The first show was for the school’s holiday assembly, where students put a modern twist on classic holiday stories. The second  production was showcased around Black History Month in February, where characters discover prominent, black figures in history.

Their last show will be based on the theme of obsession. Students chose one of the stories to be based on how Hay students are ” “obsessed with fighting,” Schwarz said.

She said she has not personally seen this play out in reality at Hay, but she often hears students talking about one fight or another when they come in to class. That’s why, she says, students felt the need to highlight this in the show.

“Teachers may not get too much insight on how they’re dealing with these issues, so this is a different way for them to show that. Their voice is really coming through,” Schwarz said.

Zaniyah Gavin, a fifth grader at Hay, said Schwarz pushed students to participate. But in the end, it was worth it for her.

“It helps you get deep inside of what you believe,” Gavin said. “I am more creative than I thought I was.”

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