Published: March 31, 2021 By

Class brings the kids ‘joy and a connection with humans during this hard time’ 

The pandemic disrupted school, but it didn’t keep kids from learning to move.

When local students began learning remotely because of COVID-19, graduate students in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Theatre & Dance partnered with Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) to help keep kids with a range of learning needs moving and engaged. 

Thanks to the success of the online program, the department and school district plan to continue the classes post-pandemic in person, with the graduate dance students traveling to the BVSD schools.

What we get with the CU students is the next generation of educators who will work with our students.”

Troy Yanel, a special education teacher at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, originally contacted the department to inquire about virtual dance classes for his students in the Intensive Learning Center (ILC), a school that serves students with a wide range of learning abilities. 

The program began with planning sessions involving CU Boulder staff and faculty. They provided direction for five graduate students to create a curriculum to meet the needs of Yanel’s students, who range in age from 14 to 18.

Students dancing over zoom

“What we get with the CU students is the next generation of educators who will work with our students,” Yanel said. “When they are working out in the world, they will know how to incorporate and differentiate various levels of learning, being able to teach anyone from top dancers to kids that have mobility problems. And what our kids get is fun, engaging college students to teach them. It’s a great partnership.”

The learning partnership, called “Leap,” has since been expanded to include programming at Fairview High School with ILC teacher Jordan Hissa’s students. 

“What I see in my kids in these classes is joy and a connection with humans during this hard time,” Yanel said. “That’s the biggest benefit in this virtual arena. Now we are talking about what this program will look like post-pandemic, which will be in a different forum.”

Ondine Geary, outreach and engagement liaison with the Department of Theatre & Dance, has written a grant proposal to continue and expand the program throughout 2021 and would establish it as an ongoing program. 

BVSD partners say their students benefit greatly from the social experience and physical engagement of this innovative exchange. Additionally, the opportunity allows CU Boulder dance students, who are taking pedagogy classes, to gain valuable teaching experience while working with ILC’s students and BVSD special education teachers.  

“The experience has provided an outlet for graduate dance students to work with students in an online setting,” Geary said. “The community impact grant from the Office for Outreach and Engagement at CU Boulder will fund us through the rest of this year and enable us to do some bigger planning for a larger grant.” 

I’ve realized it’s so important for everyone to move and experience rhythm and moving together."

The goal, she said, is to provide an opportunity for students to connect with each other in a structured and engaging way while allowing social relationships to emerge and broaden. 

Monica Weller and Brittney Banaei are two of the graduate students teaching classes.

Weller seeks to increase the variety of groups of people she works with to expand her own teaching and dance training so as to serve diverse populations. She is focusing more on movement-oriented exercises involving less dance technique. 

“Especially since we’re in a virtual platform it’s important to feel present in our bodies so we can escape from screen engagement,” she said. “My main entry point is less about specificity of dance technique and more about moving and being alive in our bodies and finding joy in our movement. The program has provided me with great training and engagement for my own teaching, as well as important connections to the community.” 

Banaei begins her classes with familiar movements, such as squats and jumps, and incorporates rhythmic movement. Music is key in her classes. She structures her curriculum around everyday human movement and rhythm.

“I notice the students gravitating to a lot of upbeat or rhythmic movement,” Banaei said. “Not all students are willing to move, but they are willing to engage in their own ways. I always give them permission to not have to do everything I do. Recently I’ve noticed one student becoming more independent and more generous in his movements. He’s less tentative and dives right in.

“I’ve realized it’s so important for everyone to move and experience rhythm and moving together,” she said. 

“It’s driven home that this is an essential human activity.”