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‘Where the magic kicks in’

ESPAÑOLA — While rehearsing a section from their opening dance, a cluster of fourth graders from James H. Rodriguez Elementary energetically struck poses with the reciting of each line:

“Dance Makes Us Strong!”

“Gives Us Confidence!”

“Dance Is Our Superpower!”

f”rom left, Faith Valdez, Rylen Holterman and Allyson Sandoval, along with other fourth graders from James H. Rodriguez Elementary, practice Tuesday for NDI North Outreach’s annual show in the gymnasium at Española Valley High School. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

It leads into one of the more silly bits in the opening of National Dance Institute-New Mexico’s end-of-year performance in Española,”Our Dancing Feet!” It includes appearances by Batman and Robin, who deliver some fun banter, playing on the words “feet” and “feat,” according to artistic director Leslie Stamper.

It was fairly calm during Tuesday’s rehearsal in the gym at Española Valley High, with about 65 kids from just one school. But the full show coming up later this week has about 500 kids, with staff and stagehands organizing all of the different routines, the students’ places on stage, costumes and props.

“It’s like a military operation,” joked music director Dan Lizdas.

Kids in NDI-NM’s North Outreach program — with dancers ranging in age from kindergarten to 9th grade from Española, Pojoaque and surrounding communities — will perform “Our Dancing Feet!” this coming Thursday and Friday at the high school.

NDI-New Mexico’s end-of-year shows in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Española this month coincide with the organization’s 25-year anniversary. The North Outreach program is now in its 21st year.

Leslie Stamper, North Outreach artistic director for the National Dance Institute, works with fourth graders from Espanola’s James H. Rodriguez Elementary during a rehearsal last week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

According to Stamper, who has been the NDI’s North artistic director for 15 years, the big annual show is “where the magic kicks in,” after the young dancers have the entire school year learning dance techniques and rehearsing choreography.

“It’s a chance to really highlight the wonderful children who are in the Valley, and it’s a chance for them to shine on stage in front of their peers and their community,” said Stamper. “It’s really beautiful, and when sometimes there can be a lot of negativity out there, it’s a wonderful experience for them to receive all the love and outpouring they get from their community.”

This year’s show, which was written by Stamper, is a nod to the power of dance. As it develops, she explained, it ties dance into positive life messages.

“Basically the throughline is how to dance through life and using various foot idioms, like ‘put your best foot forward,’ ‘take it one step at a time,’ that kind of thing,” Stamper said.

The acts in the show include an homage to how dance can connect people from different parts of the world, and a graduation-themed performance about the importance of staying in school.

A performance to the 1969 Motown hit “25 Miles” by Edwin Starr is meant to send a theme about perseverance and determination.

Faith Valdez, center, and other fourth graders from James H. Rodriguez Elementary, rehearse for their NDI New Mexico performance. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The show incorporates humor, Stamper said, with skits like the Batman and Robin intro and one with kindergartners dressed up as pop culture icons with famous shoes, like Dorothy’s red slippers from the “Wizard of Oz” and Elvis in his “Blue Suede Shoes.”

One act, Stamper added, features family groups — sibling dancers and some parents, too — whom she invited to perform dances together.

“Just that idea of dancing all around the world to dancing at home, we bond and create memories together,” she said.

‘Belief in themselves’

The NDI-North program includes fourth grade classes from nine elementary schools: James H. Rodriguez; Alcalde; Chimayo; ETS Fairview; Hernandez; San Juan; Tony E. Quintana; McCurdy Charter School; and Ohkay Owingeh Community School. Kindergartners performing this year, the “Tiny Tots,” are from Los Niños Kindergarten Center.

Fourth graders have weekly classes with Stamper from September to May as a part of the school day. Stamper said that in addition to building up dance skills, the curriculum helps promote team-building — throughout the rehearsals Stamper refers to the dancers as “teammates”— and other educational components.

For example, aspects of mathematics are incorporated when the NDI staff teaches the kids about making symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes with their bodies.

On Saturday mornings, teams of older students meet to study jazz technique and learn dances for the show. There are about 60 fifth and sixth grade students in the North SWAT team (short for Super Wonderful Advanced Team).

Another handful of kids make up the Celebration Team, which includes dancers from sixth, seventh and eighth graders and two ninth graders. Dancers typically graduate from the program in eighth grade, but in recent years it has been open to the older kids.

Some of the students who go through the North program decide to pursue dance further, Stamper said. Two kids on the Celebration Team were accepted to the New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe this year. One former student — who had started dancing at Rodriguez Elementary, went to Santa Fe’s after-school NDI-NM programs and then to NMSA — was accepted to Julliard in New York last year. Others, she said, simply enjoy the program as a once-a-week activity.

But whether the kids discover a passion for dance or not, “at least they had the experience of it,” she said. “And that’s what it’s really all about.”

‘Step by step’

The Rodriguez kids’ rehearsal this week was the first time they practiced in the high school gym. They began with body and voice warm-ups. Stamper walked them through clapping to different rhythms, stretches, and tongue twisters. At one point, the kids sang the alphabet and danced in place while Stamper yelled out different emotions for them to portray at the same time, like scared, mad or sad.

She also had them wiggle their eyebrows and move their mouths. “Imagine that bird is going to fly into your mouth,” Stamper joked with the kids, referring to a bird that they could all hear chirping somewhere in the gym ceiling.

They rehearsed the dances they’ll do with the other groups — the opening song and dance and the finale choreography to ’80s hit “Footloose” — as well as their school’s routine called “Dancing in the Street,” a block party-inspired number that Stamper said symbolizes the “spirit of how dance enliven and bring together the community.”

As she fixed the kids’ spacing and ran through the beginning a few times, she offered words of encouragement.

“We’re getting there,” Stamper projected to the group. “Step by step.”

Feeling safe

When asked what they like most about participating in NDI-NM, several students cited “Runs & Jumps,” a staple of the organization’s shows. As the kids dash to their spots on the gym floor for the opener, each one faces the audience and jumps when they reach a center X.

Ariana Hernandez, a 10-year-old fourth grader from Rodriguez, said one of her favorites is when she and friend Summer Martinez have a special part dancing with a toy skeleton during “Dancing in the Street.”

“It’s fun, and you get to hang out with your friends while dancing,” she said of the program.

“And Ms. Stamper is funny,” Martinez, 9, added.

Fellow fourth grader, 10-year-old Angelo Archuleta, called the program “encouraging” and described it as giving him a “safe” feeling. Asked why, Archuleta replied, “Everyone’s with me,” referring to his friends and classmates.

Stamper said she has heard similar sentiments from the North program’s students over the years. Overall, she said she has noticed how learning and performing dances can elevate the students’ levels of self-confidence.

“They feel they’re not afraid to take a risk and challenge themselves and try something new,” said Stamper. “They do find this belief in themselves.

“If they can commit to this program for 30 weeks and then perform in front of an audience of 1,800 people, their confidence grows and (along with) their belief in themselves and they realize, ‘Gosh, if you work hard at something and don’t give up, you really can be successful.’ ”

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