By Debbie Adams
The fourth and fifth graders at Bonsack Elementary School presented “A Night of Music and Dancing” for their fellow students and for their families on Dec. 15 in celebration of the holidays. This tradition began in 2016 with music teacher Katie Saunders and P.E. teacher Dustin King but took a break during the pandemic years.
Students presented this year’s program twice— in the early morning for students in grades K-3 and again at night for their families. Fourth graders demonstrated their musical skills in playing the recorder. Fifth graders showed off their ballroom dancing skills.
Saunders introduced the fifth-grade students to ballroom dancing by having them view the documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about a dance program in the New York City Public Schools.
“This gave them an idea of what they would be learning,” Saunders said. “We started lessons around November 1 and have been dancing ever since! Each class received nine full lessons. We combined the PE and music classes to teach them together.”
Students were paired up with their partners based on height and skill level, and which of the dances they liked the best.
“All the lessons were done in school during the regularly scheduled Encore classes. Students were not pulled from any academic class in order to learn the dances and recorder pieces. There were no after-school hours.”
Saunders choreographed the program with some assistance from a former teacher, Gloria Howell, a retired Roanoke County music teacher.
“I worked with her for several years and learned how to teach these dances from observing and working with her,” Saunders said. “I then took them and put my own spin on them.”
Saunders said she does not have a background in dance but has “picked up things here and there during my 24 years of teaching, attending conferences, and traveling.”
“Mr. King and I both co-taught the dances again this year,” Saunders added. “In fact, he had to teach them a few days by himself when I was out of school in November. He did an excellent job. I couldn’t do this program without him. He keeps things rolling backstage so I can concentrate on what is going on out front.”
The holiday program alternated between the fifth graders demonstrating the ballroom numbers they have mastered and the fourth graders playing holiday songs on their recorders. (In Roanoke County Public Schools, elementary students begin playing the recorder in third grade and continue in fourth and fifth.)
Saunders says the fifth grade students dressed up for the night performance with “the ladies in dresses or skirts and the guys in nice dress pants and shirts…some in suits! They all looked like young ladies and gentlemen. Fourth grade students dressed in holiday colors with Christmas hats/headgear or necklaces, etc.”
Saunders began the program on Dec. 15 with some coaching of the younger K-3rd grade students on how to “be a good audience by listening and showing your appreciation by clapping.”
Fifth graders opened with the Cha Cha, performed to “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.” Fourth graders in Haley Burnett’s class then played “On Christmas Night” on their recorders.
The fifth grade next danced the Merengue to “Menea,” followed by fourth graders from Jenn Hancock’s class on the recorders with “Gingerbread Jazz.”
Fifth graders danced the Foxtrot to “White Christmas,” followed by the fourth graders from Nikki Hall’s class performing “Jinglebotz.”
The fifth grade concluded the program with “The Swing”– the dance with the highest difficulty level– to “Cool Yule.”
While the Cha Cha, the Foxtrot, and the Swing are relatively familiar dances, the Merengue is not very well-known in this country. In fact, it is a dance which originated in the Dominican Republic. Saunders learned the finer points of the Merengue on a mission trip there in 2016.
“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.”
Fourth grade teachers who have assisted throughout the preparations for the concert are Haley Burnett, Nikki Hall, and Jenn Hancock. Fifth grade teachers assisting were Laura Muncey, Christi Stanley, and Suzanne Witcher.
“Bonsack students are fabulous!” Saunders said. “These kids worked really hard and were excited to show what they are learning in music and PE class. I feel really blessed to teach here at Bonsack. We have a great team of teachers who are proud of the success of our students.
“The fifth graders were really nervous and a little awkward when we first started dancing. Comments like ‘I have to touch a boy!’ or ‘Gross!’ were heard from many of them. Once we started lessons and they realized how much fun it was, that awkwardness and those comments disappeared, and they were transformed into young ladies and gentlemen. The fourth graders worked really hard to learn some new notes on their recorders in order to present the music.”
In the New Year, the fourth and fifth graders will be singing the national anthem at a Railyard Dawgs game in February. Kindergarteners and first graders will be presenting their own spring program in May 2023.