Fourth graders perform the founding of Jamestown through dance

On Thursday evening, fourth-grade students from all six of Charlottesville’s elementary schools will perform “Jamestown: A New World in Motion” under the instruction of the Richmond Ballet.

The fourth-graders have been working on their dances in 30-minute classes throughout the year. They are the 12th class of Charlottesville students to participate in the “Minds in Motion” partnership with the Richmond Ballet.

“My students look forward to this every single week,” said Kavita Kumar, who teaches fourth grade at Greenbrier Elementary School. “We had a couple of snow days this year, and when it got canceled, they were all asking, ‘Are we going to make up Minds in Motion?’”

Teaching artists from the Richmond Ballet have met with the fourth-graders at each school, often accompanied by live musicians. The curriculum combines movement, music and academic lessons.

“The very first class, our team came up with movement motifs that represented [history] questions. They had a movement for ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘where,’ ‘when’ and ‘why,’” said Cat Studdard, the outreach director for Richmond Ballet. “So, we can do the ‘who’ step for eight counts, and then we can do the ‘what’ step.”

Greenbrier fourth graders Mojib Fnu, 10, and Aubreigh Hector, 9, said they use Minds in Motion to help them concentrate in other classes as well.

“Sometimes people use dancing when they’re bored,” Mojib said. “Like when you’re supposed to be silent, you can move your body quietly.”

“I do that a lot, especially on the Standards of Learning tests,” Aubreigh said. “It makes you focus.”

Richmond Ballet established Minds in Motion 23 years ago in Richmond schools, where it continues. According to Studdard, the founders modeled their project after the most inclusive outreach program they could find, the New York-based National Dance Institute.

“There are so many kids who would never have thought about dance. It’s almost magical to see how much it means to them and to see how it just brings something to life in them,” Studdard said.

Former Minds in Motion students are professional dancers at companies from Richmond to Broadway. One former student, Paul Dandridge, wrote this year’s “Jamestown” script.

Mojib said he did not want to continue to dance, but then he thought that the Minds in Motion classes would contribute to his other career goals.

“They help teach me how to be a good goalie,” he said. “I guess I’m going to be a soccer player or something.”

“With dancing you’ve got to have good footwork,” added fellow Greenbrier student Riley Megginson. “When people are becoming football players, they actually do dance.”

The teaching artists designed Minds in Motion to hook students before they realize that they are doing ballet.

“There’s a stereotype of what a ballet should look like. They wear tutus and tights and should be female,” Kumar said. “The way they introduced it, it didn’t come across as ballet to the kids. It came across as just a fun type of dancing, which was helpful for my class especially.”

Kumar’s class includes 17 boys and six girls.

“In the past certainly, there’s been even an elitist attitude about ballet,” Studdard said. “We have to constantly try to show through our actions that what we’re going for here is, first of all, to have a professional company that mirrors our community. We live in the state of Virginia, and we’re not an all-white state.”

To write an accurate description of the founding of the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, Richmond Ballet consulted both Historic Jamestowne and G. Anne Richardson, the chief of the Rappahannock Tribe.

The script ends in 1610, before the first slave ship was documented in Jamestown. The script also avoids the forced relocations of the Rappahannock Tribe in 1682 and 1706.

Kumar said that she focuses on the lighthearted parts of history in her classes, because she does not want to revive traumas her students have faced.

Beth Cheuk, spokeswoman for the city schools, said that Greenbrier has a particularly high concentration of refugee students.

“I try to be mindful when I’m talking about war-related anything or anything related to violence because I have such a diverse class, and they’ve seen such things in their young lives,” Kumar said.
Instead, Kumar’s classes focus on the clothing, food and daily lives of the people of the time.

“They were shocked at how much time it takes to grow crops,” Kumar said. “We showed them different artifacts of pots and sculptures. A lot of the kids don’t have access to museums, so this was their first, firsthand experience seeing artifacts from the early, early days in Virginia and Jamestown.”

Mojib, Aubrey and Riley had vivid stories about what they had learned through Minds in Motion. Mojib described how English settlers during a period of starvation boiled and ate their boots first and then turned to cannibalism.

“They dug up dead bodies and ate their bones and stuff. … That was really disgusting,” he said.

The young dancers will perform a second show on Friday morning for Charlottesville’s third- and fifth-graders. Kumar also will get to watch the full performance for the first time.

“We have three teachers from Greenbrier that help the kids backstage so then the teachers can watch the show. Last year, I got so teary-eyed — ‘Oh my gosh. This is amazing,’” she said.

The first public performance of Minds in Motion will take place Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Performing Arts Center.

The Friday morning performance will start at 10:15 a.m. Spectators should arrive by 9:45 a.m. to be seated in the theater.