BAMS Dance Concert
Thursday, Jan. 31, 7 p.m.
Buzz Aldrin Middle School
173 Bellevue Ave.
By GWEN OREL
One-third of the auditorium at Buzz Aldrin Middle School was full of students during a rehearsal for the dance concert. Another third was full of their coats.
The students were not just hanging out after school to watch a rehearsal of their peers.
They were all performers, waiting to go on.
About 28 percent of the 600 students at BAMS participate in the dance program, run by Zetta Cool. That’s 170 students.
BAMS is a STEAM school: Science, technology, arts, engineering and math. “The arts departments here are thriving,” said dance teacher and choreographer Zetta Cool. The
schedule means students can have just as much dance as science. “Here, we value all of the departments equally.” Many of the dancers are also in Model Congress and honors societies.
In addition to the dances performed by her classes in the concert, Cool said, there will likely be even more students participating in the spring semester, because everyone wants to be in the “Battle of the Classes,” which will take place then. The Battle of the Classes is student choreographed.
In addition to her classes and choreography, Cool also runs her own dance program in Montclair after school, known as The Collective, in the Cool School of Performing Arts.
Dance is an elective at BAMS, and Cool is the only dance teacher. As at the high school, dance does not replace Physical Education, which makes its popularity even more striking.
Cool has worked hard to achieve that critical mass of population.
When she began teaching at BAMS (then called Mount Hebron) 12 years ago, there were about 60 dancers in the program, she said.
“I literally just built the program from scratch. I created a dance community here and made it fun and exciting to perform. I also made sure it was all-inclusive. So if you signed up not only do you dance but you also perform for most programs. My philosophy is that it’s for everyone,” Cool said.
So, students do not have to audition to participate, and everyone will have some time onstage. Of course, some students take dance elsewhere too, and soloists often have more experience.
Cool went to school in Montclair herself: her mother was the music teacher at Mount Hebron. “The first year I ever choreographed was on this stage, in the seventh grade,” she said with a laugh. It was for a Martin Luther King program. “This is home sweet home,” she said.
The program includes all grades, as well as students with special needs, including blindness and deafness. “Beautiful Day” includes signing from some of the students.
One student, Robert “Beck” Williers, performs who uses sign language, and does not voice. He is also visually impaired. “Dance has really brought out his ability to move, which is within his own body,” said Lora Orta, the teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing for the district. “He loves music. When we started with him, it was muscle memory that we wanted to work with him on. If you told him to lunge, he wouldn’t know how to lunge until you had to physically move his leg. And then push his body.
“And now he’s doing it like it’s nothing.”
Cool’s certifications are in teaching students with disability as well as in dance. “A large number of our special needs population is in dance,” she said.
Watching other kids perform drew several students into the program.
Seventh-grader Ava Moore had taken dance outside of school, and her older sister had been in the dance program at BAMS.
But eighth-grader Jordan Booker hadn’t ever danced before he joined the BAMS program. “What got me started thinking about dance was because all my friends were saying, ‘oh I’m going uptown, because I have to go to The Collective after school.’ And I saw them hanging out all the time, so I wanted to be a part of that.”
The social interaction with students in different grades, and students they might not otherwise meet, is a big draw.
During the rehearsal, when one class performs, the students waiting to go on cheer.
When Cool says, during a brief hold, “Katie has a solo,” the calls go wild.
Moore especially loves to watch the dances with partnerships and teams. “You can see how they feel each other during the dance,” she said.
Even in the Battle of the Classes, a student choreography competition, Booker said, “We are united together. We were nice to each other, and whenever we needed help in a certain part with our dance, we can just go to another dance member and ask them for help.”
That teamwork spills into the rest of their lives.
Booker said dance has made him more confident, when he goes to public places. “If there was dancing involved, at a party, usually I’d sit down, or sit in a corner,” he said. “Now I’m more active, and dance wherever I can go.”
And in part that confidence comes from mastering the choreography, said eighth-grader Owen Boyce. That confidence bleeds into other things, like taking tests, he said. “I also do chorus, and both of the electives help me with memorization. Putting it all together, you learn to divide your time.” Boyce also acts, and has a large role in the spring musical “Legally Blonde.”
Balance is challenging, Booker agreed: both physically onstage, and balancing dance and schoolwork.
THE WHOLE CHILD
Watching a shy sixth grader blossom into an eighth grade soloist is part of what drives Cool. It can be challenging creating choreography that works with beginners and will also challenge more experienced students, she said. “A lot of what I do is not just about dance, it’s about teaching the whole child.”
They learn in class, and the final part of that learning is the performance. “They get to complete something that they started out being intimidated with,” she said.
She never repeats a choreography, so each student can say a dance was set on them and say it’s their own. “Most of my choreography is inspired by their pedestrian movement. It could be how they’re moving their hand in conversation and I’ll say, ‘Hmm. I can use that.’”
Over the years, she’s found talented students and gone to their parents to say “Get this kid to the city, now,” she said with a laugh. In middle school, the kids are also going through physical changes: some look like children, others are young adults. That makes pulling costumes together hard, she said with a laugh. “There’s such a range of body types. And what I push here is confidence. I want everyone to go onstage and feel like Beyoncé,” she said with a laugh.
Cool has had many kids go on to dance in high school, college, and professionally.
One of her favorite things is to watch the children cheer for one another. “I have this philosophy that when we bow, it doesn’t matter whether nobody in the audience claps,” Cool said. “We clap for each other.”