Montanaro Aims to Start a Movement

by Bob Keyes,
Staff Writer
Maine Sunday Telegram

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Raymond (Maine) - Martha Spencer sat on the gym floor, utterly amazed. Fourth-grade students - boys, no less! - were listening to their instructor, obeying instructions, executing ideas. They stepped when they were supposed to step. They clapped when they were supposed to clap. And they twirled, jumped and moved just as their instructor had told them to. And you know what else? They smiled. "They were completely involved. They became unaware of themselves, and they became performers," said Spencer, a third-grade teacher at Raymond Elementary School. "I was astounded she was able to do that, and I was completely moved." The "she" in this instance is visiting artist Karen Montanaro, one of Maine's best-known dancers.

Montanaro, who last fall received a Maine Arts Commission fellowship worth $13,000, recently completed a dance residency at Raymond Elementary. She tried out techniques that she learned in the spring at a National Dance Institute workshop for teachers in New York City.

At a time when few schools in Maine can afford dance instruction outside phys ed, it's important for instructors like Montanaro to make their services available to schools, said Carol Trimble, executive director of the Maine Alliance for Arts Education.

Montanaro attended the New York workshop courtesy of longtime Maine arts patrons Robert and Millicent Monks, who paid her tuition and most of her expenses. During the teacher-training course, she learned how to better tap into students' energy through movement and music, and how to channel that energy into high-speed movement learning. Inspired by her training, Montanaro contacted two of the local schools where she had taught before and asked for the chance to work with the students. The Casco resident spent a week in mid-May at the Crooked River Elementary School, serving Casco and Naples, and a week in June at Raymond. The fruits of her labor were on display in the gym at Raymond two Fridays ago.

For an end-of-the-day assembly, 80 fourth-graders queued up at the front of the gym and danced their hearts out, shaking and moving to the frenetic pace of "You Can't Stop the Beat" from the musical "Hairspray." They also danced the Charleston to music from the 1920s, used swing moves to music from the 1940s, and bopped along with Motown sounds from the 1960s. The kids couldn't have performed better. They were on cue, and they looked like they were having a ball.

That's what caught the attention of Spencer, who sat crosslegged on the floor in a minor state of shock. "I was astounded," she said afterward, "because everybody - every child - was involved and focused. I think the thing that impressed me the most is that the fourth-graders at our school are the oldest class. They are ready to go on to middle school. Let's just say they have fourth-grade-itis. To have the fourth-graders completely involved was very impressive to me."

Montanaro said, "That kind of result is not unusual. The National Dance Institute pedagogy maximizes the idea that kids learn naturally through imitation and movement, she said. Kids love to move, love to burn energy. Freeing them from computers, TVs, monitors and other devices that encourage a sedentary lifestyle makes them better learners and healthier people."

"Technology is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be coupled with an equally progressive and informed approach to movement and physicality," Montanaro said. "This is my goal in life. I want to develop a movement course that will one day be part of every school's curriculum, right up there with reading, math and science."

One school at a time. She's off to a good start.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at:

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