By Debbie Adams
Fourth and fifth grade music students at Bonsack Elementary School presented their annual holiday music and ballroom dancing program, “A Night of Music and Dancing,” on December 12– once for the rest of the student body (K-3 classes) that afternoon and again for their families that evening.
The program alternates between the fourth graders playing holiday songs on their recorders and the fifth graders demonstrating the ballroom numbers they have mastered– some well-known, some less so.
This is the fourth year for the holiday event, presented through the combined efforts of music teacher Katie Saunders and physical education teacher Dustin King.
Saunders introduced the students to the program by having them view the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” about a dance program in the New York City Public Schools.
“This gives the students an idea of what to expect with the dancing,” Saunders said.
Once they knew the concept, dance lessons began about six weeks ago during music and PE classes.
Saunders says the fifth graders eventually overcame the “Ewws!” and “Gross!” of the boys and girls actually having to touch one another, to learn and perform the dances quite well.
The two teachers paired the children up based on height and dance skills. They also tried to accommodate students by letting them choose their favorite dance to participate in.
“Mr. King and I were really impressed with the dance skills of our fifth graders this year,” said Saunders. “We saw a huge transformation in our students through dancing! Our students also were very kind to each other throughout the process.”
Saunders choreographed the dance numbers for the Bonsack students “based on what I have seen done at other schools. I used what I learned by observing Gloria Howell at Oak Grove Elementary, and made the steps work for our Bonsack students.”
Saunders said she does not have a background in dance but has “picked up things here and there during my 21 years of teaching, attending conferences, and traveling.”
The dance and music program has become an annual event that fourth and fifth graders can look forward to.
Fourth graders learn all the recorder songs in music class as part of their regular music curriculum. In Roanoke County Public Schools elementary students begin playing the recorder in third grade and continue in fourth and fifth.
Fifth graders learned all the ballroom dances in a combined music and PE class as part of their regular curriculum.
Music classes meet every three days for 45 minutes. Saunders says that all the songs and dances were learned during the school day; there were no afterschool practices.
Sixty-five fourth graders performed along with 57 fifth graders, for a total of 122 students in the holiday program.
For the afternoon performance, students were, for the most part, dressed in their everyday school clothes– many clad in green for “wear green day” for “Grinch Day,” one of 15 days fun Holiday Dress-up Days during the holiday season.
For the evening performance, fourth graders were asked to come dressed in holiday-themed attire. Fifth grade boys were asked to come in dress pants and shirts– “no jeans.” Girls were asked to appear in a dress, no heels, and wearing the white gloves the school provided.
The student audience in the afternoon paid rapt attention as usual, maybe envisioning themselves in the roles as they advanced to the upper grades.
The program opened with the fifth graders dancing the “Cha Cha,” followed by teacher Haley Burnett’s fourth graders performing “On Christmas Night” on recorders.
Fifth grade dancers came on next with “The Merengue,” which Saunders described as her favorite and the students’ favorite dance as well.
The Merengue is a dance from the Dominican Republic, especially dear to Saunders as she traveled there on a mission trip in 2016.
Saunders says she knew the basic steps of this dance but learned a few more complicated moves while in the Dominican Republic.
“I was on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic where I was able to see how the dance is done in the country,” added Saunders. “I was there to assist the local church with music and to work in the schools. We were able to learn about the local culture as well; that’s when I got to learn how to dance the Merengue like the Dominicans do.”
The fourth graders performed a swinging “Gingerbread Jazz” which showed the wide range a simple recorder can have.
Fifth graders then danced the Foxtrot beautifully with its intricate box and side steps.
Mrs. Hall’s class presented “Sleigh BAG” on the recorders, inspired by another popular “sleigh” song, with a little added jazz and pizzaz.
The grand finale of the program was the fifth graders performing “The Swing,” which Saunders described as “quite a workout,” and the most difficult dance the fifth graders had learned.
Fourth grade teachers who have assisted throughout the preparations of the concert are Haley Burnett, Nikki Hall, and Tara Jones.
Fifth grade teachers are Suzanne Witcher, Jen Hancock, and Laura Muncey.
“Mr. King is my ‘right-hand man’ during this program!” said Saunders. “He keeps everything running smoothly backstage so I can concentrate on what is happening on the stage. I really could not pull this program off without his willingness to help. He even taught some of the dances this year when I had to be out a few days.
“We set out 250 chairs in preparation for the night performance,” said Saunders. “We had to pull more chairs out that evening and still had some audience members standing. We were really packed this year!”
“Mr. King and I are so proud of our fourth and fifth grade students for putting in the time and effort for this performance,” Saunders said. “I had a few fourth graders who were struggling with the recorder songs at first, but they worked really hard and did an outstanding job.
“I would like to thank Leanne Leftwich and Stephanie Burris for their support of the music program here at Bonsack,” Saunders added.
Leftwich is the principal at Bonsack. Burris is assistant principal at both Bonsack and Mount Pleasant Elementary schools.
Upcoming music events by Bonsack Elementary students this year include the fourth graders singing the national anthem for the Railyard Dawgs in January and at a Salem Red Sox game in May; the fifth grade will be presenting the annual fifth grade talent show in March; and kindergarten and first grade will be presenting a program in May as well.