SITKA, Alaska (AP) — Students at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary this week learned how to line up as either a “biscuit” or “butter.”
They created a “spiral” and a “bagel.”
And they held hands, sashayed and do-si-doed to the sound of modern and traditional music in the school music room as the visiting teacher Susan Michaels called the dances.
“I get a chance to talk to the kids ahead of time,” said Susan Brandt-Ferguson, the Keet music teacher who organized the two-week dance classes. “The reaction is always mixed,” she said of Michaels’ visits. “But when she comes, it’s never mixed. Everyone’s having fun. Everyone’s smiling. There’s no other option.”
Michaels is here as part of the Artist in Residence program, sponsored by Alaska Arts Southeast with a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts. Kids in grades two through five in music classes at Keet Gooshi Heen and Baranof Elementary School will each take four classes from the visiting artist over the two-week period.
Brandt-Ferguson, who organized Michaels’ visit four years ago, said the La Crescenta, Calif., dance instructor and caller was a big hit with both herself and the kids the last time she came.
“I knew I had to have her come back,” said Brandt-Ferguson, noting that the kids who took the class last time are now in sixth through ninth grades.
The kids learn not just traditional and modern line and square dancing, but other lessons as well.
“A lot of what she focuses on is the fun of it, but also the courtesy and respect,” Brandt-Ferguson said. “She has a wonderful way of bringing that out in the kids.”
The lessons will culminate with a barn dance 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14, in the KGH gym. Fishing for Cats will play for the event, giving the kids a taste of a real barn dance.
Brandt-Ferguson said dance is an important part of any music program.
“People wonder why I bring a dancer into the music room,” she said. “Dance and music are two arts that are most closely related. You can’t pull them apart. They grew up together. … I’m not sure which came first.”
Brandt-Ferguson said many religions in early America didn’t allow the young to dance to instrumental music, but they could dance while singing. “There is a whole repertoire of ‘play parties,’” she said, which she uses in her classroom.
Pupils from Christine Hole’s fourth-grade class said they enjoyed their first lessons, which led off with “spiral” and “bagel.”
“It was really active,” said Fiona Raasch, after her first class.
“It was fun,” agreed classmate Stephen McGraw. “We learned new games we haven’t done.”
The kids said they heard about the Artist in Residence, and were expecting a visual artist or dancer. They were surprised to be getting a dance teacher.
“I thought, ‘cool, we’re going to have fun,’” said Dylan Dumag.
The students received a primer about dance etiquette during the regular music classes, which was reinforced by Michaels on their first day.
“She was really nice,” Kaia Lass said. “She said we had to be respectful. You say ‘yes.’ … If I asked Fiona to be my partner she would say, ‘yes.’”
For the first lesson, the kids formed a circle and were told to hold hands. Michaels drops one of her hands to form the spiral.
“It’s to get used to holding hands,” Kaia said of the first lesson. Michaels said this also teaches the kids that the dances only work when they are holding hands.
In the classes, boys dance with boys sometimes, and girls with girls; other times girls and boys dance together. There are also line dances, in which the kids dance by themselves in lines and rows.
Holding hands turns out to be no big deal in the fifth-grade dance class later in the day, with the kids forming a “long way set” of two parallel lines. During the 35-minute class, they learn a few dances including the Ceilidh Castle, which involves a number of dance skills – learning to dance to a count of eight, do-si-do, bowing, and forming right-hand and left-hand “stars” in sets of four. The kids are eager to get the dance right, although that’s interrupted by a few side conversations and mild rowdiness.
“Gentlemen, stay in control,” Michaels tells them. Brandt-Ferguson gives them a rating of 11 for the day on a scale of 13, since they jumped in eagerly to the exercise but were at times “chatty, chatty, chatty,” while Michaels was trying to talk.
Michaels works as a writer for low-budget documentaries on cable networks, including Lifetime.
“My joy, my avocation, is teaching dancing to children, adults, families, whoever will let me do it,” she said.
Michaels said she started off as a caller, going to dances with her husband, who played fiddle at various parties and dances.
“I was looking for something in traditional dance that I could do and I ended up calling,” she said. Michaels said she was shy as a kid, but noticed as a caller that she could be on stage, calling dances, and no one was looking at her.
“On top of that, everyone was smiling,” she said. “With a few words, I could bring complete joy to a room. I was the facilitator of joy.”
She also saw the “healing” power of dance, where dance can become a safe place to hold hands, have eye contact and reconnect with each other.
She said the Sitka kids are easy to work with because they were already learning dances before she arrived.
“Susan kept it going,” Michaels said. “She gets all the credit for that. Not all teachers appreciate how important dance is in the music curriculum.”
She said courtesy is an important part of the lesson. She remembers how traumatized she was when the popular boy in school made a big show of not wanting to dance with her. “I’ll never forget that,” she said. “I still remember his name. Larry Zimber.”
Michaels shares the story with her classes, to impress upon them the importance of respect.
“This sort of foundation of courtesy and being kind … nothing teaches that better than dance,” Michaels said. “In my class, that’s what we’re going for.”
She also enjoys being with kids, and seeing them enjoying themselves, as they move to music.
“I love being with kids – they’re just beautiful souls,” Michaels said. “When you see them sashaying and they have big smiles on their faces…. How often do you see that? It makes me feel good about the world.”
The barn dance on Valentine’s Day is open to the public.