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Why Ballet West is teaching Utah's 5th graders to dance

SALT LAKE CITY — Dance classes might seem out of step with a fifth-grade curriculum, but a local dance institute’s initiative to elevate the lives of children has offered many young students the experience of a lifetime.

“It gave me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said University of Utah senior Maria Mancera, who was first introduced to the program as a fifth grader at Rose Park Elementary School. “We didn’t have a lot of money in the household so we weren’t able to go to dance lessons, … but then 'I Can Do' came around and that was the perfect thing for me.”

The opportunity was made possible by Salt Lake City's Ballet West dance company and its "I Can Do" program, which works with local schools to teach fifth graders important life skills through the art of dance.

During its 21 years, "I Can Do" has touched the lives of thousands of children as the program has expanded from two to 13 schools across the Wasatch Front. Students are treated to weekly hourlong lessons where they learn dance basics like jumping and stepping to rhythm. They show off their moves at a recital at the end of the school year.

For Mancera, who now mentors dance students for Ballet West, the experience shaped her life.

“I had a lot of confidence issues,” she said. “But (that was the) day that I could break out of my shell and start dancing. … Now it’s a real escape.”

She isn’t the only one who’s benefited from "I Can Do," either. The experience leaves a lasting impact on those who participate, according to "I Can Do’s" assistant director Dana Rossi, who typically instructs the young dancers. She said past students sometimes stop her in public, recalling the memories they had while dancing.

“It stays with them,” she said. “They remember this fifth-grade year where they danced. And they might not ever dance again, but they remember this big accomplishment that they danced for a year and they had fun. … It means the world to me.”

It’s in pushing kids to step out of their comfort zones to try something new where "I Can Do" sees its success, according to the program’s founder Peter Christie, Ballet West's director of education and outreach. The program’s name is an acronym for “Inspiring Children About Not Dropping Out.” Christie said that means not giving up on new challenges and dreams. And those dreams don't have to be dance-related — Christie hopes students will take the values and skills they learn and pursue ambitions that are important to them.

“Rather than somebody else telling you what to do, it inspires them to take on that responsibility of finding their own inspiration,” he said. “If you can do a dance program in fifth grade — which you never would have thought you could do — how can you turn that into a life lesson of trying something new?”

Christie and Rossi admitted that some fifth graders are hesitant in the beginning, but those who take the chance to step out of their comfort zones learn the value of confidence and risk-taking. Dancing together also stresses the importance of teamwork, patience and the satisfaction of working together toward a common goal.

“It can be a vulnerable thing,” Rossi said. “It’s kind of scary. But every single kid is successful in their own way. We’re not there to teach them to be professional dancers but to be successful in this venture.”

With 21 years and counting, the program is looking to broaden its horizons by expanding beyond the Wasatch Front. That might mean embracing technology to connect classrooms with dance instructors across long distances in Utah.

“With the development of technology, distance learning is a big thing that happens now,” Christie said. “If we can do that with math, literature and music, why can’t we do that with dance lessons?”

In the meantime, "I Can Do" intends to stick to its routine: teach, inspire and encourage success.

“Through this program, they learn how to try something that they wouldn’t have tried,” Christie said. “It’s amazing to watch it all come to fruition.”