Class puts a dance in their step

Kids at Johnnycake Elementary show up for school a half-hour early to learn folk dance traditions from around the world

  • Sara Hampt, the vocal music teacher at Johnnycake Elementary School, leads the folk-dance group including Kahlil Hardy, 10, center, and Karimahe Parham, 9, to his left, in the hand jive. The fourth- and fifth-graders get together to dance before school starts on Fridays.
Sara Hampt, the vocal music teacher at Johnnycake Elementary… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
November 10, 2009|By Arin Gencer | arin.gencer@baltsun.com

The students trickle into the gym at Johnnycake Elementary, deposit their bags against a wall and make a beeline for one of the colored dots marked on the floor.

Then it's time to dance.

The electric slide, the Cotton Eye Joe, the Macarena - even the chicken dance. For half an hour before school, the student members of Johnnycake's folk-dance group cover them all, easily hopping, clapping or sliding from one to the next without missing a beat.

"We get a lot of different eras in there," said Sara Hampt, the school's vocal music teacher, who took over the team a year ago. The kids are divided by age, the younger ones - who usually need more repetition - coming in on Mondays, and others split between Wednesdays and Fridays, Hampt said. At least 30 kids are involved in the extracurricular activity this year, she said, and participation is contingent on good behavior during school. The group performs in school concerts.

The group, in its third year, is one of a variety of opportunities the Catonsville-area school provides to students: Fourth-grade teacher Kelly Fonner is in her second year of tap instruction and started a hip-hop group this year. About 20 kids do tap, she said, and there are 35 in hip-hop - with 40 on a waiting list.

"It's just nice to expose them to different art forms," Fonner said. "It's neat to see them get something out of it; then they work harder in class, too" so they can participate.

For Hampt, the folk-dance classes are a natural extension of her role as music teacher and of her love of dancing. She has taught her students a number of popular American dances, including the hand jive, the bunny hop and the moves to "YMCA." They've also learned a Hawaiian dance and the Mexican La Raspa, as well as German and Austrian ones, she said. This year, she wants to do more Latin dancing, some swing and "whatever else I come across."

She teaches more than just the steps.

On a recent Monday morning, Hampt was going through "Hava Nagila" with several of the younger students.

"Hava. Nagila," she said, prompting them to repeat the words. "Does anybody remember what language that is?"

"Hebrew," first-grader Aayliah Richardson, 6, replied.

She posed similar questions during a Friday lesson with fourth- and fifth-graders.

"Hava Nagila," she said to the dozen or so standing in a circle with her. "It's a song of ..."

"Celebration," Jalyn Divers, 10, finished.

"It's a good one for them to know, and it's good exposure, and it's fairly simple," Hampt said of the dance.

With a short window and plenty to do, the kids walk in ready to go. Even stragglers don't waste time once they arrive.

Many of them started on the team last year, they said.

"I like to dance," Jalyn said, explaining why she joined.

Fifth-grader Makayla Pollard added that she enjoys learning about different cultures. "It's fun," she said. Her favorite dance? The Cotton Eye Joe.

"It gives the kids a chance to open up, to broaden their horizons," said parent Tamika Pittman, who is also a dance teacher in the city. "For local kids to be able to do it without their parents having to pay a fee is kind of cool."

She watched as her fourth-grader, Karimahe Parham, stepped to the beat of "Hava Nagila," holding hands with her peers. Already taking dance classes, the 9-year-old comes to the Johnnycake lessons for even more dance time, Pittman said. "She loves it."

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