Dancing with technology

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2007 - 5:08 PM

A Minnesota Shubert Center program uses a live audio-video Web connection to bring the arts to school kids statewide.

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Lauren Hoffman, left, and Summer Thibodeau checked their form against what they could see on the screen. To the right were Nora Ghoneim, 12, left, and Rachel Flett, 11.

Photo: Steve Rice, Star Tribune

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Dancer Mathew Janczewski stood in front of a class of seventh- graders recently and expounded on the joys of doing the Lindy Hop. Then the paired school kids gamely mimicked the moves as he and a partner taught the 1930s dance craze at the Hennepin Center for the Arts in downtown Minneapolis.

But not everyone was getting the steps just right.

"Girl in the middle, bring your feet in a little bit," Janczewski, the founder of ARENA Dances, said to one girl whose incorrect stance stood out.

She pointed to herself with a silent "Me?"

"Yes, I can see you," he replied with an encouraging smile, as she adjusted the position of her feet. "Yeah, there -- there you go!"

Sure, the kids were 8 miles away at the Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource (FAIR) School in Crystal, but it didn't hamper their ability to learn the Lindy in less than an hour -- or Janczewski's ability to teach it from downtown.

The dance class was another distant-learning class in the Minnesota Shubert Center's ever-growing Arts Education and Technology Program, one of 110 such sessions the organization aims to present this school year.

Using a Web connection that provides a live audio-video feed, the performers and students interact as if they're in the same room, viewing one another on a large screen.

On this recent morning, the students were in Crystal and trying swing dancing, but they could have been participating from anywhere in Minnesota and learning hip-hop or flamenco from another professional dancer. And while about 70 percent of the Shubert Center's distant-learning sessions cover dance, according to education director Melissa Ferlaak, kids can also interact remotely in master classes with musicians from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra or even in a 10-part music-writing course with a composer.

Money is no barrier for schools

The distant-learning sessions are free to schools. Artists such as Janczewski and other program expenses are paid through funding that the Shubert Center receives from corporations such as Best Buy, General Mills and Xcel.

The sessions do require a special webcam on each end of the interaction. Schools can pay $2,000 to $5,000 for the device, but it's a one-time purchase and is usually made at the district level and shared among schools to mitigate the cost.

But even buying the equipment isn't necessary. Schools can join a waiting list to borrow one of two loaner units from the Shubert Center, with the only cost being return shipping.

From the artists' perspective, there's no driving to visit the school in person, not a big deal when the school is in the Twin Cities but a major drawback when the school is, say, in Albert Lea or on the Iron Range.

"It gets rid of the location barrier for artists," said Kimberly Motes, director of the Shubert Center (www.mnshubert.org). "If they had to drive up to Duluth for two hours, conduct the sessions, and then drive two hours back, that's a day of rehearsal lost."

Conversely, busing the kids downtown would cost schools money and disrupt the students' day. Those field-trip hassles are eliminated with the Internet-powered sessions. And such trips aren't even feasible for schools outside the Twin Cities.

The ease and minimal cost of the Shubert Center's distant-learning program is especially attractive at a time when school districts are increasingly cutting funding for the arts, with dance being especially vulnerable, Motes and Ferlaak said.

"We're trying to connect kids with artists," Motes added. "It's also about empowerment, having kids getting up and doing it and seeing what that entails."

Students might appreciate the exposure to the arts, but the physical interaction of the Shubert Center's long-distance dance sessions is clearly what holds their interest. Exuberance was the theme of the hour in the FAIR session, observed from the Shubert's side downtown, and in a session a few weeks later with sixth-graders at Fernbrook Elementary School in Maple Grove, viewed from the kids' perspective.

There were lots of snickers as they were asked to pair with a partner -- almost always with the same gender because, you know, cooties still exist at that awkward age.

Tuning in from Maple Grove

At Fernbrook, 25 boys and girls gathered in the gym in front of a big-screen projected image of Janczewski addressing them live 20 miles away. They were among the four classes of sixth-graders participating in the Shubert session on four consecutive days as part of a physical-education unit on movement and rhythm.

The kids giggled while they hopped around, swung their arms and waved their hands to warm up, following Janczewski's example. As the dancer made a dramatic, sweeping move to stretch, the impressed kids responded with a collective "Whoa!"

Janczewski went on to explain the origins of swing dancing and how different it is from his main pursuit, modern dance. As he segued into showing the kids how to do the Lindy Hop, step by step, the kids followed his instructions with an increasing amount of goofing off and laughter.

"The beautiful thing about dance," the savvy instructor boomed over the growing din, "is that you're expressing yourself through movement, not talking!"

Ah, a teaching moment.

After about 30 minutes of learning each Lindy move, with the kids occasionally exchanging positions on the floor to give everyone a clear view of the dancers on the screen, it was time for run-throughs in small groups.

The first time through, the whole dance was like a free-for-all. The kids tried to keep up with the music while stealing glances at the screen to get prompts from Janczewski and his partner.

Rachel Flett, 11, whirled around Nora Ghoneim, 12, who was the lead dancer of their duo. The girls' feet skipped on the gym floor as if they were dancing on smoldering coals. They frequently reeled away from each other, with their clasped hands always pulling them back, as if their bodies were rebounding off invisible walls. In the crowning move at the end, Nora turned while lifting the smaller Rachel, who collapsed to the ground in a fit of laughter.

"That was the best part," Rachel said later. "I liked being lifted up."

Both girls said learning the dance was hard but fun.

That's what Motes and Janczewski say they are looking for. Today, the kids might see the Shubert Center's distant-learning sessions as a fun distraction from a typical gym class. But as they grow older, maybe they'll remember that singular interaction from a professional dancer and become more interested in the art form, just as Janczewski did after a dance company visited his high school when he was growing up in Illinois.

All it takes is one kid out of 1,000 to make a difference, they said. Maybe it will be Nora.

"I never knew I could do swing dancing," she said breathlessly after doing the Lindy for the first time. "But I tried, and I did it!"

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542.

  • LEARN MORE

    For more on the Minnesota Shubert Center's distant-learning program and other educational offerings, visit www. mnshubert.org, or contact Melissa Ferlaak at 612-465-0220 or melissa@ mnshubert.org.
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