Fourth-graders from San Antonio, Midway, Cottonwood, and Parkview Elementary rehearse a dance number.
Courtesy photo

This season’s fall National Dance Institute of New Mexico educational dance program, featuring fourth-graders in the Socorro district, pays homage to the history of American jazz music. The performance, “Got Jazz,” on Thursday, Nov. 17, at New Mexico Tech’s Macey Center will offer matinee school-time performances at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., with seats reserved for adults who want to avoid not getting a seat at the typically sold-out 7 p.m. performance. Admission is $6 for adults and free for youth, but they must have tickets. Tickets can be obtained online at or at the door.

Now in its 25th year in Socorro, the NDI presents a hands-on dance residency where elementary school students practice daily with a professional dancer and musician in an original show, usually about cultural or scientific history. This year’s NDI performance is an original production conceived of and created by the NDI New Mexico staff, from the script to the choreography to the costumes and sets. One first-grade class – the Tiny Tots – will also join the performance.

The fourth-graders are from San Antonio, Midway, Cottonwood, and Parkview Elementary; Sarracino Middle School and CVCS students are on the Celebration Team.

The NDI-Socorro residency is a collaboration between the NDI statewide program, Socorro Consolidated Schools, and the New Mexico Tech Performing Arts Series. NMTPAS does all fundraising and day-to-day coordination. Early residencies started in Socorro, Magdalena, and Alamo; the first two remain, with Magdalena at the end of April.

“This is the best hands-on arts experience I’ve ever seen, and I’m so excited that Socorro has been a part of the NDI experience for 25 years, one of the longest residencies in the state,” said PAS Director Ronna Kalish. “I encourage the community to come out and support the kids – you’ll be amazed. But get to Macey early, it’s going to be packed! And to see the enthusiasm and energy these elementary-aged students bring to the performance is really something.”

As the fourth-graders practice with their professional mentors, four or five students from each school are selected to be on the Super Wonderful Advanced Team, or SWAT. SWAT students stay after school to learn and practice additional dances. They return the following years, usually through eighth grade.

“They work really hard,” Kalish said, adding that one SWAT member chosen in elementary school, Michaela Wilkinson, stayed with the program through her senior year at Socorro High School. “This took a real commitment on her part, because there are so many competing options in activities for high school students.” Michaela was also one of the last Socorro high school students to participate in NDI, as the statewide program changed its policy about including high school students.

Kalish said this year’s show has taken students on a cultural-musical journey of one of the most significant forms of American music, jazz – from the big band jazz greats such as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Billie Holiday to New York’s Cotton Club Scene, Jumpin’ Jive and Swing. “After dancing to some of the great hits in jazz for three weeks, students will remember some of this history. Later in their life, these thoughts might nudge their thinking in new directions and insights,” she said.

NDI is now in 34 communities statewide and has taught more than 9,000 students in 96 school programs, with Socorro being one of the oldest in-school programs in New Mexico. Each year, instructors travel around New Mexico conducting three-week residencies. This year’s director, Lauren O’Brien, has been working together with an assistant dance teacher, two musicians, and local coordinator Dana  Chavez, rehearsing every day with local elementary students, learning their routines in preparation for the public performances. In addition to all Socorro fourth-graders, older students – NDI alumni – form the SWAT and Celebration teams.

This year’s sponsors are: Positive Outcomes, A-1 Quality Redi Mix, Walmart, Dr. Stephen and Beth Wells, Bob and Kathy Markwell, New Mexico Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Socorro residency is part of NDI New Mexico’s statewide Outreach Program, which places a certified instructor and professional pianist in school classes throughout the state as part of their curriculum. It also trains classroom teachers to get their students up and moving and incorporate NDI techniques into their core curricula.

All NDI New Mexico programs are character-building and use dance to teach important life lessons, what NDI calls the unforgettable “Core Four”— Do Your Best, Work Hard, Never Give Up, Be Healthy,” which equals success.

NDI is the biggest outreach event that New Mexico Tech does in the school districts and community. The program teaches students to strive for excellence, build self-esteem, work as a team and develop almost all NM State Education Benchmarks in dance, theater, music and physical education.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the residency, Kalish said, is that students become the professional dancers when they come to Macey Center. Students learn all about theater, dance with a professional band, have lights, costumes, sound, learn entrances, exits, blocking, and performing to sold-out audiences of their families, friends and neighbors.

Chieftain Staff Report