Human Interest

As most parents and teachers know, there are few things more adorable than the organized chaos of watching small children learn to dance with one another.

It’s a mess, sure, but a joyous one.

“Hands out of your pockets,” square dance instructor Martha Edwards said to one overexcited student. “You cannot dance with your hands in your pockets.”

Dec. 16 saw Big Park Community School host Pioneer Day, gathering its multi-age students — kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders — together to take part in events intended to bring them closer to a shared heritage: The West’s pioneer traditions.

“Pioneer Day is the multi-age’s culminating activity for our westward expansion unit,” teacher Kathleen Schmechtig said. “For the past month, we’ve been studying westward expansions, which included learning about pioneers, the invention of the steamboat, and the creation of the Erie Canal, the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express and the Transcontinental Railroad.

“Our Pioneer Day gave the students hands-on experience of what life was like for pioneer children.”

As one of the United States’ most distinctive folk art forms, square dancing was a given.

By the expressions on many of the students’ faces, however, it’s safe to assume they were not acquainted with the concept — or dancing with a partner, period.

“Now, this is a teensy bit tricky,” Edwards said, defining the rhythm. “When I [clap] you repeat it. Square dancing is all about listening.” She clapped again, and the students repeated it exactly. “You’re excellent listeners.”

But getting the rhythm down, time would prove, does not lead directly to expert dancing. Students forgot their steps within a few bars of “Cotton-eyed Joe.”

Edwards, a longtime veteran of the city of Sedona’s Artist in the Classroom program as well as the theatre director at Sedona Red Rock High School, wasn’t fazed by their disorganization. Pausing between songs, she smiled, rolled her eyes gamely and made a child-wrangling gesture.

“They’re kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders,” Edwards said. “At least kinesthetically, they’re learning something …. Actually, it’s remarkable how much they can remember.”

Excited chatter accompanied Edwards’ announcement that the students would now be “swinging” their partners — and indeed, overexcitement got the best of one small kindergartner as she hurled her partner, a boy nearly twice her size, to the ground. The accident resulted in no injury. Instead, the boy laughed and stood.

“You do not want to smash your partner to the ground,” Edwards advised after the dance ended, and began another round of giggle-inducing instruction.

“The smiles on the students faces told you how much they loved all of the activities today,” Schmechtig said. “We heard a lot of kids say, ‘This is the best day ever.’”


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