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February 19, 2020

By Kevin Ko-wen Chen, Communications Manager

“Remember what I told you ladies about those turns in your sneakers so you don’t hurt your ankles,” Ethel Calhoun reminds a group of 5th Graders. She turns to the rest of the class, who are bubbling over with energy. “Anyone else want to do anything?”

At the moment, Calhoun is trying to coax a few more students to participate in the solo segment that will close out their portion of the annual dance concerts at Ethical Culture. “Ms. Ethel” — as the children fondly call her — is kind but firm. When one student raises a hand and asks if she could “maybe” perform a new move, Calhoun pushes her to commit.

“Don’t be going up scared. Otherwise, what’s the point?” she says. “You have to lead now — no more going back and crying in the corner. How do I lead? By going in there even if I’m afraid.”

Ethel Calhoun dances onstage with students

For 5th Graders, this year’s dance concert will be their last one at Ethical Culture before they move on to Fieldston Middle School — hence the urgency of Calhoun’s call for performers. She has worked with these students since they were in 2nd Grade and seen them mature in different ways: some who were introverted when they were younger have come out of their shells, while others who always enjoyed being the class clowns have acquired more gravitas. Calhoun has plenty of memories of other students as well, from her many years — at least eight, she says — teaching dance to students at Ethical Culture. A parent whose daughter is now in the Fieldston Upper School recently thanked Calhoun for inspiring her child, who is now studying both dance and music.

The children love Calhoun, and it’s clear Calhoun loves the children, too. Although she also teaches in other schools, she is particularly drawn to ECFS. “There is a certain discipline and order and structure that’s in the School that’s not always in other schools. And also the staff supporting you — at Ethical, there’s always someone here with you when you’re teaching.”

Nominally, students come into each session with Calhoun to learn how to dance. But by the end of each hour, they’ve learned so much more. Take the solo routines: when Calhoun notices a couple of students trying — and struggling — to replicate the movements of their peers, she turns the incident into a teaching moment about individual expression. “Do you,” she urges. “That’s why I gave you the solo spot. Don’t do me, don’t do her — do you.”

How do I lead? By going in there even if I’m afraid.

Dance is a useful medium for teaching children to maintain and respect physical space. It’s also ideal for inculcating a sense of discipline: ten- and eleven-year-olds, still inclined to goof off, must learn to count the beats and listen to musical cues, to be constantly alert to the movements of those around them, and to train their bodies to perform a high kick or a grand jeté. Most important to Calhoun, however, is dance’s ability to instill self-confidence. “There are all kinds of ways to express yourself, and sometimes creative ways are easier for people who are shy,” says Calhoun. “For kids who may struggle academically, the arts give them another way they can shine. The arts build the confidence; once they feel confident, they can feel confident about anything else they do.”

Calhoun’s guidance has inspired some students to step up as leaders within the group. After their run-through, the 5th Graders sit on the stage to share their observations and discuss ways they can continue to improve. “Just try to smile because it will give joy to the audience — and that’s the point of dance,” says Evie F. ’27.

Marin H. ’27 also chimes in: “If you make a small mistake and you realize it and you just fix it, they’re not going to know.”

At the end of rehearsal, some newly-inspired 5th Graders come up to Calhoun to ask if they can perform in a solo. Calhoun is sympathetic, but says no. This becomes another teaching opportunity — how to seize the moment before it’s gone.

It’s the day of the concerts, and 2nd to 5th Graders — wearing coordinated outfits like members of a dance crew — are more than ready.

In the morning, the 3rd Graders shimmy to the reggaeton beats of “Mi Gente,” swishing their hips with plenty of flair. 2nd Graders burst onto the stage and perform a series of “isolations” that sees them stretch and wiggle their bodies as they mimic brushing their teeth, running to school, and performing other morning routines. After this warm-up, the students bounce to the rhythm of African drums. In the afternoon, Calhoun returns to the stage to lead the 4th Graders — decked out in plenty of headbands, sunglasses, and neon — as they dance to Whitney Houston’s classic, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”

Then, of course, comes the 5th Grade. The Afro beats of A-Star’s “Balaya” come on the speakers, and the students scramble to the edges to make a center stage for their peers. One by one, they come out. Cartwheels dissolve into backflips. More than one student launches into a handstand. The 5th Graders borrow moves from genres new and old — dabbing, pirouettes, the worm, an eight-count of tap dancing — as they perform to the cheers of the audience.

Ethel Calhoun bids farewell to the 5th Grade

It’s a bittersweet moment when the song comes to an end. Calhoun thanks everyone gathered for the chance to work with their children for the past four years. Then she rallies the 5th Grade for an encore performance of “Balaya” — one last chance to dance their hearts out on the Ethical Culture stage.

“I always like to give them that freestyle solo stuff because I want them to feel creative and to feel that freedom of expression,” she says.

“They go into that middle, and, for a few seconds, they’re free.”