Volume 74, Number 33 | December 22 - 28, 2004

Villager photo by Jennie Miller

Victoria Fernandez in movement class at P.S. 3

P.S. 3 program has youngsters keying into dance

By Judith Stiles

SLITHER, VIBRATE, SQUASH are words you might associate with critters in nature, perhaps swatting bugs in the summertime. They are not words normally associated with ballet, and they certainly don’t make you think of children dancing on stage in the “Nutcracker Suite.” However, they are key dance words used in movement classes for children, to trigger poetic images that translate into nontraditional dances performed at P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village.

Jennie Miller is the movement teacher at P.S. 3 and ironically she does something in the classroom that you cannot actually teach. She does not instruct the students. Rather, she unlocks the doors to their own personal creative movement and expression. She thinks of herself as a facilitator who provides the tools, sometimes the words, that allow children of all shapes and sizes to express themselves through movement. Miller is one of those rare teachers who has a gift for inspiring children and creating a “safe space” for all of them to feel free to dance.

“Words can be the building blocks to create a movement sentence,” says Miller, as she runs her hand across the different words of a Langston Hughes poem that covers the wall in large print. SWIRLING, SHAKING, SCATTERING are words from a poem used by four students per group to begin to build a dance sentence. Then when the groups are ready, the students ponder the question, “How will we turn the different stories from the groups into one single dance?” This becomes a collaborative effort where the students and Miller struggle through the choreographic process together. And, yes, there are many boys in this elective class, enjoying poetry and dance (eureka!), sporting nontraditional dance attire, such as baggy jeans and droopy T-shirts, but nevertheless, dancing up a storm along with the girls. The students at P.S. 3 are given “choice time” where they can choose to attend a movement class with Jennie, resulting in lively classes filled with half boys and half girls.

In the month of December, they enjoyed participating in a visiting dance program with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company sponsored by the City Center Teach program. Three dancers from Alvin Ailey visited Miller’s classes offering up more traditional ballet and modern dance style steps to the children. Led by dancer Yusha-Marie Sorzano the students were asked to imitate dancers James Pierce III and Ricardo Zayas, copying basic ballet moves to lively African drumming by Luke Notary, also of Alvin Ailey. The children had previously watched an Alvin Ailey performance with a Q & A afterwards, and surprisingly, in their school clothes and bare feet they were able to keep up with the steps. Miller hopes that this instruction will go into their memory banks of dance moves and the children will draw on what they learned the next time they choreograph their own dances.

“When you jump, I don’t want to hear elephants,” asked Alvin Ailey instructor Sorzano with a big smile. However, when the workshop is over and Miller is back with her students alone in their so-called safe space, elephant jumping is just fine. If it is the best expression of a storyline that the young dancers are trying to create then Miller says “Jump and thump!”

P.S. 3 has a long tradition of excellent movement classes dating back to the early days of John Melser who founded the school in Greenwich Village in 1971. Joan Sax, the original creator of the P.S. 3 movement program, spearheaded extraordinarily creative performances every year that the students choreographed. Somehow she led the children to perform unique dances that were not cookie-cutter recycled performances from last year. Starting in the ’80s, Sax quickly became the guru of children’s modern dance in the West Village, with many students choosing to attend the school, largely because of her program. Three years ago Sax retired and passed the baton to Jennie Miller, who has two children attending the school, Lily and Jacob, who are both enthusiastic budding young dancers who also picked mom’s class for their “choice time.”

With New York City’s shrinking physical education program, P.S. 3 is fortunate to have creative dance classes for the children, which is also good exercise for kids who spend most of their day sitting in school. The funding for this program is largely out of the School Executive Committee budget. Ten thousand dollars was raised for materials for a beautiful new wooden dance floor, which was installed for free by several dedicated fathers over the summer.

When speaking with the students, it is clear they thoroughly enjoyed the exposure to traditional ballet and modern dance. An active 9-year-old, Arman Maghami, loved the visit from the Alvin Ailey dancers and seemed mesmerized but their graceful dancing. He was able to immediately imitate the modern dance moves, and when he finished, he astutely observed, “That one, two, three step, is a lot like a baseball move, winding up for a pitch!” RELEASE, DASH, SLIDE, may very well be some of young Maghami’s key words for the next piece he choreographs. Miller hopes a few city officials might attend the P.S. 3 spring performance to see Maghami’s marvelous dance before any big budget decisions are made about funding physical education programs in the city schools versus the proposed West Side stadium. Key words: STOP, PAUSE, CONSIDER.

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