Welcoming environments. Energized students. Passionate instructors. When we arrive at any one of Arts Umbrella’s free, donor-funded or community partner programs, we’re immediately greeted by these three things. In this series, we’ll take you into the classroom, to discover the magic that happens in the Arts Umbrella community, beyond our core facilities.
After School Sport and Arts Initiative at Sir Sandford Fleming Elementary School
When we arrive at Sir Sandford Fleming Elementary on a sunny afternoon, school is just getting out. Kids are running to the buses—despite warnings from their teachers to walk—eager to take part in whatever after-school merriment they have planned.
The halls of the school are lined with student achievements and artwork, as bright inside as out. We get lost on our way to the classroom that’s being used for Creative Dance, the Arts Umbrella community program we’re visiting today. On our way, however, we find other after-school programs in operation, including art and music. It’s clearly an art-loving community here.
After asking for directions, we make our way outside to one of the long portables and down the end of the hall to the classroom. Inside, a few kids are clustered at the front of the room, eating their snacks. Instructors Kay Barnes and Keely O’Brien are warming up and engaging with the students, asking after their days and their lives.
They’ve gotten comfortable dancing, being a leader, and taking chances and risks.
—Kay Barnes, Arts Umbrella Instructor
A piano stands in the corner, further evidence that this room is used for creative pursuits. As more kids file in, we see a bit of an age range, from grades one to four, but they mingle and mix regardless of their home room.
Before warm up, Kay introduces us to the group. She then puts on some music (a Cranberries song) and encourages everyone to get moving. Each student is given an opportunity to lead the group with movement. We get to see monkey faces, swirls, twirls, and other ballet moves, even some squats and animal impressions. Throughout it all, Kay reiterates that anything goes, so long as it involves movement.
The class structure is loose, giving the kids plenty of time to play games, but also introducing elements of choreography and performance. “They’ve gotten comfortable dancing, being a leader, and taking chances and risks,” says Kay.
This afternoon, Kay asks for game recommendations from the kids and they let it all pour out. Today, we’ll get a chance to see just a few of their favourites: the Animal Game, Freeze Pose, Little Red Riding Hood Tag, and Museum. Each game encourages listening, movement, cooperation, creativity, and acceptance. Those skills take time to develop. “Trying to learn how to listen, how to be present, not to judge, is all part of the journey,” says Kay.
Dance is an excellent outlet and teaching tool. “It’s a form of expression, and it’s the acceptance of someone else’s expression too,” Kay explains. Both she and Keely see the kids making a choice to participate and to respect other’s choice every week. “We affirm that and listen in to ensure that everyone has a turn to make choices and be expressive in their own way.”
While we take a short snack break mid-way through the hour-long class, Kay shares a story about one of their kids, who immigrated to Canada from Syria earlier this year. “She had no English when she arrived,” says Kay. “But with dance, she was able to watch and learn very quickly.” Because dance is a physical art form, it gave her another language to communicate with. “It was an entry point.” At the outset of the program, the girl was shy and inward, but now she’s one of the most participatory and outgoing students. “Her mom comes in and tells us that this is her highlight—she loves this class.”
Over the course of the program, the kids have learned choreography to a few different songs. During class today, they perform to “The Greatest” by Sia, and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake. One of the student’s grandparents sits at the front, smiling as her granddaughter busts a move.
Some students take the choreography very seriously, following along and executing the steps with precision. Others take the opportunity to really bare their souls, performing the steps with exaggerated expression and passion.
[Dance is] a form of expression, and it’s the acceptance of someone else’s expression too. We affirm that, and listen in to ensure that everyone has a turn to make choices and be expressive in their own way.
—Kay Barnes, Arts Umbrella Instructor
Arts Umbrella Instructors Kay Barnes (L) and Keely O’Brien (R)
“Building confidence has been a cool thing to see in some of the kids,” says Keely. “There’s a big difference between sitting on the side not wanting to dance, and just trying.” The instructors never push anyone to participate, but by creating a judgment- and stigma-free environment, even the shyest students give dance a try. And that’s the most important part.