The energy inside the Malta School auditorium in Ballston Spa is off the charts. Ninety fifth-graders are getting ready to perform complex choreography that’s set to some of the greatest music of the Motown era, and the kids can barely contain themselves. They’ve worked with professional Broadway performers for weeks, and now they’re ready to make it real. For those of us who grew up in the Motown era this is a delightful generational déjà vu with enough enthusiasm to completely blow-away any audience. For someone who studied dance as a child, as I did, it is even more so.
The public school dance residency program was initiated in the Ballston Spa Central School District as part of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) Youth Arts Education Program. The program started at the end of January with fifth-graders from Malta Avenue Elementary School, along with several students from Wood Road Elementary School. During the program, the students looked forward to weekly dance and choreography lessons by professional New York City Broadway performers. These included SPAC’s Senior Director of Education, Dennis Moench, who was in the Broadway revival of Les Misérables; as well as Jennifer DiNoia, who had the lead role of Elphaba in the Broadway production of Wicked; and Barrett Davis, whose credits include performing in the original Broadway production of Mary Poppins. The spirited musical accompaniment is performed by Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius on keyboard/melodica and percussionist Brian Melick.
Moench is the director of the event. He’s like a magician in how he deals with the kids, and they clearly enjoy the instruction. It’s difficult for any director to maintain order over an adult cast, let alone 90 fifth-graders, but he does so with relative ease. Each separate school class performed to a different song and each wore their own color T-shirt (red, blue and green are classes in Malta School; and purple are students from Wood Road School). Both Davis and DiNoia were onstage the entire time, with Moench providing additional instruction and guidance. Malta Avenue Elementary School Principal, Sharon D’Agostino, was clearly pleased with the way the students were responding. She stood in the center aisle of the auditorium closely watching the rehearsal as she spoke to me. “At first some of the kids were shy,” she said. “They did not want to really express themselves yet. But as it went on, many of them became the most expressive dancers. This experience brought them all together as a group, but it also strengthened the character of the individual students and gave them a sense of confidence and self-esteem.”
After DiNoia finished singing a knockout version of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” she walked into the lobby with me to discuss her involvement with the project. “Besides working on Broadway, I am also the mother of a two year old and I teach and work with kids from all over the country,” she told me, as we stood in front of a Motown mural created by the kids. “When my dear friend Dennis asked me if I was interested in working with him on this project, well, of course the answer was yes.”
DiNoia went on to tell me that the program wasn’t just about getting kids excited about the choreography that goes into a dance routine—or their heart rates up. “There is a lot of thought process and memorization in dance,” she said. “There is math and physics and then there is a style layer to it. They have to work in a box dictated by the choreography and the music. That is the challenge. They must find their own style and learn to express it in the different angles and corners of the box. This experience is a lesson in how they can individually express themselves while being part of the group.” DiNoia said that she has studied dance for her entire life, but for kids who might not end up with a career in the arts, “it can still become a vital part of creating a well-rounded adult,” she said. “After all, creative minds ultimately create a better society.”
As DiNoia walked back into the auditorium, and I prepared to leave, the Contours classic Motown hit, “Do You Love Me Now That I Can Dance,” came echoing down the hallway. For the exuberant classmates and proud families of Ballston Spa who witnessed the kids’ performance, the answer to that musical question is a resounding “yes!”