Friday, June 02, 2006

Rhythm, Music

The stage in our building's auditorium is only a few feet off the ground, flanked by a blue curtain, with no backdrops of any kind. The words, "Anything Is Possible," are stenciled onto the back wall, white on black, and from nearly anywhere in the audience, you can see the door to backstage propped open with an orange traffic cone, our school aide sitting on a piano in the "wings," coaching the performers in our annual talent show.

Our two emcees are 8th grade boys, one in our school's sweatsuit (it's a gym day), the other in shirt & tie. They are funny and enthusiastic, heads swelled with the pride of being on stage, the power of emcee-ing. Whenever the first boy speaks, I hold my breath, hoping he'll stick to whatever they rehearsed.

The first four or five acts are all musical. Two willowy 8th grade girls, the lucky kind who are top-of-their-class smart, well-mannered, and beautiful, perform "The Boy is Mine," backing each other across the stage, pointing fingers and giving the hand with exaggerated attitude. Near the end of the song, the girls walk away from each other towards the corners of the stage, where the emcees are sitting, staring up at them. As she approaches, tall and in a rather small skirt, one emcee suddenly realizes he'd better sit somewhere else. Or maybe her look tells him to move. He moves, and looks out at the audience. A sixth grader performs next, another pop/R&B ballad, followed by several similar performances. The audience sings along, claps in rhythm, cheers enthusiastically. Anyone who doubts the benefit of or need for arts education should take a look at an audience of kids who bop, sing, clap, and sway to any rhythm you play for them, fairly bursting to dance and sing.

The kids have arrived at or been coached in a compromise between sexiness and school-appropriate dress - flowing tops, tight jeans, short-but-not-obscene jean skirts worn with high-heeled boots, button-down shirts, colorful neckties... A group of 8th graders gets up and does a step dance. They're good, that's undeniable, but should they know how to shake it like that?

There are long pauses between acts. The music nearly always must be started again. There are no mic stands, so the emcees place the mics on the floor or hand them to the performers at the start of their acts. Yards of wires clutter the stage, one emcee belly-flopping onto the stage to pull them out of the way as the performers begin dancing. The emcees shout out Puerto Rico and shout out the Dominican Republic, and to all those in-between! The audience goes wild.

A tiny sixth grader, a girl who approaches life as though it is a constant crisis, her hand waving furiously and her face semaphoring urgency whenever she needs anything, belts out a gospel tune. She's so young you can see the little girl t-shirt she's wearing under her tight, low-cut white shirt. My front row of sixth graders sways, raises their arms, partly in irony, partly infected by the energy of the song. The girl on stage stomps her feet and gestures grandly as she sings. Her mom snaps pictures.

The afternoon ends with a performance from our incredible ballroom dance team, the boys in black pants, dress shirts, and burgundy-and-peach striped ties, chosen to accent the girls' tasteful, flowing peach shirts and swinging black skirts. They perform a merengue, which has the audience clapping and swaying and supervisors from the elementary school's afterschool program swinging their hips as they wait for us to clear the auditorium. Then they do a dramatic tango, arms arched over their heads, eyes locked on each other. They finish with a swing number, lots of old-style attitude, hands shaking, big smiles. The sixth graders, who have been chatty (and catty) throughout the show, are dead silent, eyes fixed on the stage. I ask my principal if the ballroom dance program is cut for certain next year - and it turns out it isn't! Sixty-six hundred dollars, she says, and every dollar was worth it. And we're having an outside organization provide PE and arts programming next year, and they will do additional ballroom dance with the younger kids (many of whom participated in the dancing classrooms program in elementary school and were nodding along as each song started, remembering what it was and how the steps go).

And then flowers were given to the organizers, and to the kids, and we took our classes and sent them out into the rainy afternoon.


Blogger Nancy said...

beautiful! we had an arts festival at our school last week, with kids doing step, african dance, etc. it was great! so moving, isn't it, to see the kids join together as a community across ethnic lines?

6:15 PM  
Blogger graycie said...

They are so brave and beautiful, aren't they?

Your dance program: is it connected to the one shown in the film Mad Hot Ballroom? I watched it here with some teachers and we were mightily impressed.

10:31 PM  
Blogger NYC Educator said...

Great writing.

I feel like I'm there.

4:26 PM  
Blogger the syracusan said...

"semaphoring"? Now who's showing off the GRE words? ;)

4:27 PM  
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