Fourth-graders marched single file into the gymnasium of Patrick Henry Elementary School on Friday to thunderously loud applause.

That was from the student body, seated on the floor neatly in rows, ready to watch them perform for Dance Español.

Dance Español is a 2-week, in-school dance workshop led by Pedro Szalay, artistic director for Southwest Virginia Ballet. Piedmont Arts sponsored it for the fourth-grade classes at both city schools.

In daily, 45-minute sessions, Szalay led the students through dance moves performed to Spanish-language lyrics they sang, along to the rhythm of piano music by Beth Chapman.

Before her group’s performance at Albert Harris Elementary School, fourth-grader Sariyah Millner said, “I am excited, but at the same time I’m scared, and when I get scared, my stomach starts, like, popping. But I’m excited at the same time because … we get to have fun with more kids.”

She said she enjoys learning Spanish outside the classroom and with students in other classes.

At the start of the programs, Szalay told the student audience that it is important to learn another language – he speaks three, he said – because languages “help you to learn to help other people. You can help yourself and help others.”

Adding in music and dance with learning language “is a nice element for the class,” he said.

Many of the lyrics the performers were to sing had focus on vowels, because “the vowels are the most important part of language,” he told the students.

He spoke animatedly, and the young audience watched his introduction with rapt attention. Nonetheless, he told them, “I promise I’m not going to talk all morning because –“

And at that point, Chapman interrupted his talking with loud piano playing.

“That means, ‘Pedro, don’t talk, man,’” he said. And so it was the performance began with the audience in cheerful laughter and applause.

Through the 30-minute program, the students performed moves line-dance style, with kicks, hops and arm movements. Among the lyrics were statements such as “Todos somos buenos estudiantes” — “We all are good students” – directionals, such as “atrás and adelante” — “back” and “forward” – and parts of the body, each touched as announced.

Ariyana Nowlin, a fourth-grader at Albert Harris Elementary School, said that Dance Espanol makes her “feel happy and excited at the same time because we have the opportunity to, like, go outside the classroom and, like, express how we feel, and we get to be around other kids instead of being in just one classroom.”

During the past two weeks, “we have learned a lot of Spanish and new dances,” Sariyah Millner said.

“I have learned a lot of Spanish and how to work with other people,” Ariyana said.

Dance Español focuses on fourth-grade students because they have both physical coordination and the concentration skills necessary to benefit from the 45-minute sessions, according to a press release from Piedmont Arts. The program enhances memorization skills as the students repeat choreographic patterns in different combinations throughout each class. The development of these skills helps strengthen mathematical abilities and increases focus, discipline and self-control.

The program “was such a privilege for my students to participate in,” PHES Principal Cameron Cooper said. “Dancing in a coordinated fashion, allows students to develop skills of concentration, memorization, and focus-all of which carry over into successful academic achievement.”

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