Celebrate the Beat gets Eagle County kids hopping | VailDaily.com

Celebrate the Beat gets Eagle County kids hopping

Caramie Schnell
Vail CO, Colorado
HL Celebrate the Beat 3 DT 4-16-08

AVON, Colorado ” You hear the Celebrate the Beat project long before you see it at Avon Elementary School. Jazzy piano music, paired with the constant beat of a bass drum, has lured two young girls to the doorway of the music room. They mimic the student’s dancing until they’re found out, and then they sheepishly scamper down the hall.

Inside the room, Jessica Crooks’ third-grade students are practicing their parts for the upcoming Celebrate the Beat concert. The children count to themselves to keep time, their mouths moving silently as they polish their moves for “Minnie the Smoocher” (a play on Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher”). Music Director Tony Keiraldo plays the music and sings the song’s lyrics while Leta Neustaedter and Tracy Straus, both exuberant, extremely animated teachers, fine-tune the students’ moves ” “knees higher … look at the audience … bounce.”

The trio has spent the past three weeks working with six classes of second-, third- and fifth-graders. For an hour each day, the students have practiced rigorous, jazz-inspired dances that they’ll perform on the Vilar Center stage in Beaver Creek Friday evening.

The theme of the performance is the Harlem Renaissance.

“To me, (the Harlem Renaissance) was a wonderful period of history in terms of what was happening with the arts. It was just an explosion of good things after slavery. I think it’s particularly significant to bring it to Colorado because there is so little diversity here,” said Straus, who performed a similar show in an Aspen school in 2001 and has plans to do the same in Crested Butte in November.

“When the librarian told us that the program was infusing the whole school with a special kind of energy, it reinforced our belief that the positive effects of Celebrate the Beat reaches the whole community, not just the children directly involved in the program,” Straus wrote in an e-mail.

This isn’t Straus’ first time teaching local children to dance ” she led a weeklong dance residency for local kids called “Pop Hop” at Edwards’ Berry Creek Middle School in August. The free program will return Aug. 4 through 9 at Avon Elementary School.

Straus is the founder and artistic director of Celebrate the Beat, the Colorado affiliate of the National Dance Institute in New York, where she is also the associate artistic director. Eight years ago, Straus created the program with the belief that arts have a power to engage and motivate children and people in general.

Damian Woetzel, director of the Vail International Dance Festival, brought the residency to town last summer and has made Celebrate the Beat a permanent fixture within the festival.

“Exposing young people to the arts creates a more discerning audience in the long run, which applies pressure on the artist to do more creative work. More directly, Celebrate the Beat brings something to the lives of children that they might not otherwise be exposed to. They learn creative skills, they learn teamwork, they learn how to deliver a performance. Tracy teaches them skills, really important skills, on how to excel,” Woetzel said.

Celebrate the Beat classes are extremely physical. From the time the students walk into the classroom, they’re moving and learning. Rather than talking or yelling, often Straus and her team whistle, whisper, clap or use sign language to get their attention.

When one boy stops paying attention and falls behind the others, Neustaedter stands next to him. With a smile and exaggerated movements, she shows him the correct steps, enouraging him when he gets it right.

“My favorite part is building relationships with the kids,” said Neustaedter, who is a clinical social worker as well as a member of the Children’s Dance Institute. “There’s been two times when things have happened with the kids, when someone was getting bullied or was upset. We talked about it as a group for a few minutes and then danced it out. There’s relationships going on here that go beyond just a dance teacher and student … We’re making that human connection.”

During an interview last summer, Straus said she views each class as a performance for both the children and herself.

“I really feel like it’s all about building teamwork, respect and trust. I’m very, very honest with the children, and I think that builds honesty and trust,” she said.

Part of the reason the program has been successful is because of the high expectations Straus and her team have for the students, Crooks said.

“The kids aren’t fooling around because the teachers are always saying what’s expected of them. They make it fun for the kids, but they also hold them accountable. There are a lot of kids participating that I thought for sure would hate it. They don’t ” they’re excelling at it.”

Before the residency, Crooks said she was nervous about having the classes in the middle of the school day when the students would have to return to math class afterward. Her fears turned out to be unfounded, she said.

“When they walk back, they’re completely quiet. They’re actually learning more now when dance is over. They’re more focused, and their concentration has improved tremendously,” she said.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or cschnell@vaildaily.com.

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