4-year-old girl sat in the back of her cousin’s dance class and watched as Miss Virginia moved fluidly into the sunny, high-ceilinged studio. She carried a basket of seashells and handed one to each of the dancers, inviting them to touch and listen to them.
“There is a dance in this seashell for each of you to discover,” she said.
Miss Virginia then had the dancers take the dance floor, guiding them to dance their interpretation of the shell through spiraling their bodies, making smooth inside curves and rough, bumpy outer movements. Miss Virginia’s voice was warm and musical, and her message changed that little girl’s life forever.
“It was the most magical experience I’d ever had,” Marilyn Berrett relates, now grown up and having made her own mark on the dance world. “Not many 4-year-olds have an experience like that. But I did.”
So began the path to dance for Berrett, now a professor of dance at BYU and founder of the dance outreach program Kinnect, which focuses on bringing dance education into elementary schools.
Virgina Tanner’s philosophy that children could be choreographers and not just dancers shaped Berrett’s entire approach to dance education. Years later, as a graduate student, Berrett would meet another legendary pedagogue whose influence would reinforce the principles Miss Virginia planted so many years before. Berrett participated in dance residencies alongside BYU’s Dee Winterton, where she would watch him teach children and learn his techniques.
Winterton had a profound effect upon fellow faculty, students and people across the country. He grew up a simple farm boy, often dancing for only the cows. But Winterton knew from a young age the power of dance.
“He felt that dance had the potential to change people,” reminisces Pat Debenham, former BYU professor of dance and close associate of Winterton. “He could see the potential for everyone to enjoy and celebrate the fact that we have bodies. And those bodies are gifts.”
Winterton left extensive journals in which he documented his theory of dance, writing, “Dance has a special role to play in the education of the ‘whole man’ . . . man’s basic need to experience the creative process is fulfilled in direct and personal ways when the body is used as the means of expression.”
“He still teaches all of my dance education students every year, even though he’s been gone since 1984,” Berrett says. “When they watch his work with elementary school children, captured on film, their capacity as a teacher to tap into the wonder of each child increases. . . . And it’s fun for me to see students come to BYU wanting to perform and leave saying they love to teach.”
Winterton’s vision about the importance of teaching children dance and his desire to make dance a participatory experience influenced Berrett to found BYU’s Kinnect, a student company whose focus is primarily on developing the dance artist/teacher. Today Kinnect visits elementary schools to provide performances and classroom instruction, much in the way Winterton and his students originally performed and taught through the Artists in the Schools residencies.
“Elementary students spend all day at a desk, learning based on the cognitive mental capacity of the subjects,” explains Rachel Kimball, a former dance education major at BYU. “We strengthen their learning by connecting the mind with the body. Kinnect gives them ability to enhance those skills, be creative, be expressive, be physically well.”
Kimball attributes her participation and pursuit of a dance education degree to Berrett’s guidance.
“It was Marilyn who encouraged me to be a part of Kinnect, and now in hindsight I am so grateful for her encouragement,” Kimball says. “She has a zest for life and dance that seems to be contagious and will bring a smile to anyone’s face who is in her presence.”
When Kinnect goes into the schools, they see an immediate response from students and teachers alike. Meagan Barnes, also a former dance education major, says one of the best things about Kinnect is that it teaches basic elementary education curriculum, but the students don’t realize they are learning.
“When you integrate dance with the curriculum, it helps the students learn better,” Barnes explains. “Not every student learns the same way. It’s fun and engaging, and they’re learning to make connections and applications in a way they wouldn’t through rote memorization.”
Jana Shumway, current director of Kinnect, has seen what she calls “miracles in the classroom.” Recently, a sixth-grade teacher shared with Shumway how powerful dance proved to be when teaching her students about microorganisms.
“She said they were going through the kingdoms and when she brought up the Monera kingdom, the kids went crazy, raising their hands and sharing everything they could think of,” Shumway shares, a little laugh in her voice. “When she got to the Protista kingdom, the kids were silent and just stared at her. But when she moved onto the Fungi kingdom, the kids raised their hands and went crazy again.”
The teacher thought about this and wondered why the kids couldn’t remember anything about the Protista kingdom when they were so enthusiastic about the other two. And then she made a connection.
“She said we had danced about the Monera and Fungi kingdoms, but we never hit the Protista kingdom,” Shumway relates. “This was months after the information had been shared and they were revisiting it before testing. She was 100-percent convinced it was because they had danced while learning.”
Using dance, Kinnect emphasizes how subjects like literature, science, and math intersect and correlate. The first few weeks of the winter semester, Kinnect students formulate a theme for the year’s performances. This year the theme is light, and the company has paired with graduate students from the engineering department to create special light suits. Through patterns and movement they can explore how light influences the world around us.
This collaboration with the engineering department brings a new and exciting element, something they are eager to share at the Dance and the Child International conference this July in Denmark. There, BYU Kinnect students will demonstrate how they perform and then split up among the individual classrooms for smaller instruction.
As the students prepare for this year’s Kinnect production, they are mindful of creating an experience that would honor Berrett’s vision of going into the schools and inspiring creative movement.
“When I was younger, I was all about performing,” Berrett says. “But I’ve discovered, as a teacher, the real stars are the students in front of me. I love seeing their ideas, their potential and their lives transform when they dance and create, as mine did with Miss Virginia.”
Kinnect teaches about 12,000 elementary students each year. Perhaps there is a small, quiet child in the back of a room having a transformative experience, discovering that dance can relate to just about anything, like light or seashells.