At first the teacher’s directions created confusion among the first-grade gym students at Marcy Open School in Minneapolis.

After arranging the kids in a line, Blake Nellis asked them to walk at the same pace — with no one faster or slower than the others.

It took some a while to realize it wasn’t a race, but eventually they were able to walk together across the gym floor in unison. Then Nellis had them improvise movements in the “high kinesphere” — waving their arms in the air — while encouraging them to be creative and to make unexpected choices. (Watch a video.)

Nellis is a dance teacher, but with students so young, he’s not so much teaching them as allowing them to dance.

“Every first-grader thinks they already know how to dance,” he said. “You just have to get out of their way.”

He and three other teaching artists have been tasked with carrying out a new partnership between Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts and the Minneapolis Public Schools.

By the end of the school year, all Minneapolis first-graders will have gotten an introduction to dance basics thanks to the “First Moves” program, which pairs dance artists with physical education teachers for a four-day residency in each of the district’s 43 elementary schools.

The program, funded by San Francisco-based Aroha Philanthropies, marks an expansion of MPS Arts’ Cultural Experiences Partnership, which enlists nonprofit arts organizations and foundations to provide arts experience for students in every grade level, including visits to Orchestra Hall, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Guthrie Theater.

Arts and smarts

Research suggests that arts programming can benefit students in a variety of ways.

“In schools where dance programs flourish, students’ attendance rises, teachers are more satisfied and the overall sense of community grows,” the National Dance Education Organization said in a 2013 report that reviewed a number of recent studies to understand how dance affects learning.

The report cited decades-long research by James Catterall, which found that eighth-graders who had high levels of arts engagement starting in kindergarten had higher test scores in science and writing. Catterall also found that at-risk children with lower socioeconomic status and diminished family stability earned higher grades, and were more likely to graduate from high school, if they had arts-rich experiences in school.

But arts curriculums don’t always get the funding they need, which is why the Minneapolis district has reached out to arts groups.

Jessi Fett, education director of the Cowles Center, said the residencies are all about creative movement, rather than ballet or a specific dance form.

“It’s centered around elements of dance, like body, action, space and time,” Fett said.

After four days, the students are supposed to have gotten an introduction to creative movement while demonstrating competency in things like motor skills, movement patterns and improvising movements that have a beginning, middle and end.

Teaching the teachers

Another goal of the program is to empower physical education teachers to teach dance. Some are more receptive than others, Nellis said.

“One teacher was right there with me, rolling and railing and laughing,” he said. “Another was on a laptop, watching from a distance, almost like it was a prep hour.”

While a phy-ed teacher isn’t the same as a licensed dance teacher, there are a lot of parallels, said Nora Schull, facilitator for the Minneapolis School District’s arts program.

“The more in-depth goal is getting our physical education teachers to feel comfortable with understanding what dance is — that it’s not necessarily performing a routine or learning a specific style,” she said. “Creative movement ties into what they are doing already.”

At Marcy Open School, phy-ed teacher Tammy Cowan helped keep the kids focused when their attention strayed during Nellis’ class.

“Dance is not my strong suit,” said Cowan. While she can’t imagine doing a whole class period of dance, she can see using some of Nellis’ exercises in warmups. “I would never talk about ‘kinesphere,’ ” she said, referring to a word Nellis uses to get kids to understand the space around their bodies. “I don’t see myself dancing around with them — there’s a reason I was so happy to have him come.”

But Cowan said she embraces any opportunity to give her students something special, such as the bicycles and snowshoes that rotate from school to school. She’s also employed tinkling sticks, bamboo poles used in a traditional Philippines dance.

“I figure every time they have a chance to do something — you never know, maybe this is going to be their thing,” she said.

Most of her students loved the residency, Cowan said, but one student in particular was transformed by it. Recently classified as a special education student, he has a hard time focusing or following directions. In dance class, though, you wouldn’t know it.

“We’ve never seen him so focused,” she said.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts journalist.