Ryan Peck dances with Elizabeth Nunez, middle, and Isabella Simones, all age 5, during a performance Friday at Sunset Elementary School. Students in each grade at the school took turns showing off skills they learned during their physical education classes in front of families and supporters throughout the day.

Photo by Shawn McHugh

Ryan Peck dances with Elizabeth Nunez, middle, and Isabella Simones, all age 5, during a performance Friday at Sunset Elementary School. Students in each grade at the school took turns showing off skills they learned during their physical education classes in front of families and supporters throughout the day.

Music, physical education join forces at Sunset Elementary School

With their feet planted squarely on pieces of tape on the gym floor Thursday morning, 20 Sunset Elementary School first-graders were ready for one final rehearsal.

“Are you ready to try it with the music?” music teacher Denise Whitney asked the children.

Among shouts of assent, a little girl in red threw her arms in the air and shimmied around in circles.

“I love music,” she said. “I love rock ’n’ roll music.”

“Actually, it’s square dance music,” Whitney told her.

The girl responded with a shrug, a smile and another dance move.

“I love square dance music,” she replied. “I love to dance, it’s fun.”

The students were preparing for Friday’s dance performance, when their parents would line the walls of the gym with video cameras attached to their hands to watch their children perform.

Each grade learned a different series of dances — from square dances to traditional routines from countries such as the Philippines, Israel, Ireland and Russia.

For three weeks, music and gym classes were combined to learn and practice the dances.

Whitney and physical education teacher Susan Nicholson started the program together more than 20 years ago.

Nicholson said the program has allowed her to watch students progress from kindergarten to fifth grade in their coordination and relationship to music and one another.

“Every year, we add a little bit more,” she said. “We give them a little more difficulty, they learn a few more moves. It’s amazing, and to watch them show their parents at the end of it … the whole thing is just a really nice program.”

The square dance the first-graders were learning was proving to be slightly difficult, as the students sometimes stumbled, missed steps or couldn’t connect with their partner when the square dance caller asked them to.

Although the learning process can be frustrating for both students and teachers at times, Nicholson said it is important to expect a lot.

“You just put the apple out there in front of them, and you just hope they go out there and get it,” she said. “And usually, they do. Most of the time they get where we want them to go.”

As the students filed out of the gym Thursday for recess, Nicholson and Whitney reminded them of the strict dress code for the final performance the next day.

“It’s typically the best dressed day of the year,” Nicholson laughed. “It’s always been a lot of fun.”

On Friday, Jo Willey, a substitute teacher and mother of a Sunset third-grader, had arrived a few minutes early for her son’s performance.

She peeked into the gym and a smile crept across her face as she watched a group of fourth-graders perform a square dance to “Houston.”

“I’ve subbed for most of these kids since kindergarten,” she said. “My son just transferred here, so this will be his first time doing it.”

She said her son, Dakota, didn’t tell her what any of the dances were going to be, but he practiced a few of the moves at home.

“He’s really excited for this,” she said. “He’s really excited for it, and for a boy to be excited about dancing, that’s awesome.”

She said the dance program sparked something in him she didn’t know was there.

When Dakota learned about a talent show at his school, he announced to his mother he was going to perform a dance for it.

“The kids learn a lot of coordination and how to follow directions,” she said “It’s really great how the teachers get really into it and how they work together.”

Right before the last fourth-grade song Friday, the students lay on the floor in silence.

As the opening beats of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” echoed throughout the gym, laughs and smiles erupted from parents.

“This was my generation, Michael Jackson and all,” Willey said. “It’s cute to see them do it. This is a great song, great to dance to.”

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