St. Vincent finds time at the ballet barre gives kids a lift

May 15, 2011

Middle school dance program promotes sound nutrition, healthy body image

Students in Little Rock, Ark., are literally dancing their way to a healthier future.

"I've learned self-discipline and I'm more focused," says Latrice Howard, a sixth-grader at Forest Heights Middle School in Little Rock. "My schoolwork has improved and I'm in better shape. "But mostly," she adds, with enthusiasm, "I've learned that I love to dance."

Latrice is one of a couple of dozen middle schoolers at Forest Heights participating in a new program that involves a three-way partnership between the middle school, the dance department at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and St. Vincent Health System of Little Rock. The program, which began in September, is funded through a Healthy Community Grant from Catholic Health Initiatives Mission and Ministry Fund.

Peter Noonan, vice president of mission integration at St. Vincent, which is administering the $23,000 grant, explains the goal is to help students improve their health by becoming more active as well as to build self-esteem and develop self-discipline. About 83 percent of Forest Heights' 675 students meet federal guidelines for free or reduced-price lunches, and few have had opportunities for cultural enrichment. In addition, about 36 percent of the boys and nearly half of all the girls are overweight or obese.

Making the grade
Currently, about 25 students, six of whom are boys, meet twice a week for about an hour and a half to learn dance from one of three University of Arkansas instructors. "We didn't want this just to be recreational dance," says Stephanie Thibeault, head of the university's dance program. "We want the kids to enjoy themselves, but we also wanted the program to have a serious focus."

Bonnie Guthrie is a special education resource teacher at Forest Heights and the liaison for the dance program. She said that since one of the goals is self-discipline, expectations are clearly spelled out. "They need to understand that while dance is supposed to be fun, it also entails learning and responsibility. They have to make a commitment to show up, to bring their leotards and dance shoes to class and to be ready and eager to work," she said.

Since most of the students had never danced before, much of the first semester was spent doing warm-up exercises and learning techniques used not only in ballet, but also in modern dance and jazz.

"We taught them a few combinations the first semester, but the emphasis wasn't on a piece of choreography," Thibeault explains. "The second semester, there was more of a shift. We began building dances for them to do for their recital" this month.

Like many of the students in the dance program, Latrice is especially excited about that event because it will be her first time performing on a real stage, in real costumes, in a real theater. The recital will take place at the university before family and friends, with students not only performing but also discussing the pieces between dances so that the audience can understand the context.

"These students don't have the opportunity to do this on their own," says Thibeault. "While we don't expect them to become professional dancers, we do have a couple who could go very far with dance, and we are trying to get them scholarships to continue.

"More than anything, it gives the students something to be excited about — something they can own and be proud of," she continues. "You get results in dance. It takes a while to get things right, but once you do, you feel like you have really accomplished something."

Leaps and lunges
Initially, 30 students were recruited for the dance program, with an equal number of boys and girls participating. "But on the first day only eight boys showed up. When some found out they were going to learn ballet, they dropped out," says Guthrie.

Some students left the program because their families moved from the area. "This is a bit of a transient population, which moves often. In other cases, we lost kids because of behavioral problems in the classroom," says Guthrie.

Participating students have to maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average and have a school attendance record of at least 90 percent. Guthrie says students who began the program and stayed with it have shown unflagging dedication, while others were added to take the places of those who left.

Healthy steps
The class is having an impact on the participants' well-being.

Thibeault notes that several of the students have lost weight as a result of the program; one girl, she says, lost nine pounds the first semester. Guthrie says that prior to the program, students had their height, weight and blood pressure taken. When those measurements were retaken in January, along with their body mass index, several showed significant improvement. Each student will be screened again at the end of the school year.

A component of the program promotes healthy eating choices, and nutritional snacks are handed out before each class. "I'm always reminding them to drink a lot of water and get rest so their bodies can perform more efficiently," Thibeault says. "I think they hear these messages because they're tied to dance, which is something they are committed to."

Noonan at St. Vincent explains the dance program is part of a larger relationship between Forest Heights and the hospital, which is located roughly five blocks away from the school.

"We also mentor students on a one-to-one basis during the school year and help support a program called Project OK, where Little Rock police officers interact with students in a positive manner. They provide a role model to help keep these students on the right track," he explains.

"St. Vincent believes in promoting the health of its community. Through the dance program, we hope to plant seeds in the hearts and minds of these students that make them realize the health benefits of physical exercise throughout the course of their lives."

St. Vincent's dance documentary

View "Dancing Our Way to a Healthy Future," St. Vincent's video about the middle school dance program.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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