Elementary Students Learn from Visiting Artists Thanks to Chatham Arts Council

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The Chatham Arts Council’s Artists in Schools program instills confidence and creates lifelong memories for elementary students

Artists in Schools dance teacher leads students
Gaspard & Dancers’ Evan Wilkins leads a group of North Chatham Elementary students in a movement workshop.

By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography By John Michael Simpson

Rebecca Exley presses an index finger to her lips, quieting the fourth and fifth graders fidgeting on the multipurpose room floor at North Chatham Elementary School. The students are excited to see Gaspard & Dancers perform – it’s the dance company’s first time partnering with the Artists in Schools program, a countywide initiative that began eight years ago.

“I tell my students all the time that learning about music and art will help them succeed in ways they couldn’t even imagine right now,” Rebecca, a fifth grade teacher, says. “I have seen my own students who aren’t usually engaged or excited become different students when we have the arts groups out at our school. The smiles and fun they have during the programs and workshops are priceless, and it carries over to the other things they do in the classroom. I would love to have the program happen more than once a year. I think the benefits for our students would be amazing.”

Students posing with dance teacher
Students Ana Burbank and Axel Godoy Basabes strike a pose with Marsha Guirlande Pierre.

The Chatham Arts Council, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in October, makes it possible for professional artists to work with students in at least 15 schools in the county. Its artistic director, Cheryl Chamblee, says the council wants to expand AIS to all public schools in Chatham, but that goal is dependent on available funding from various sources, including the business sponsors, foundation and individual donors as well as the North Carolina Arts Council, Chatham County. Since 2015, the council has raised the money to cover the estimated average of $9,000 per artist residency (there are 15 this year) to create and conduct in-school workshops and performances.

“I don’t know of another county in our state that does that,” Cheryl says. “When we were creating our program, most models included the [individual] school bringing some of the funding or the teachers writing grants for it, which we didn’t want them to do because they already have plenty on their plate.”

Students posing with Artists in Schools dance teacher
Students Ammy Rojas Jara and Iker Hernandez Rangel with Gaspard & Dancers founder Gaspard Louis.

North Chatham Principal Janice Giles says AIS gives students the opportunity to connect what they are learning in the classroom to a lifelong enjoyment of the arts. “We are fortunate to have the opportunity to expose our students to these talented professionals,” Janice says. “We would not be able to provide exposure to these world-class groups without the generous support of donors invested in arts education.”

“Engaging students in [art, music, theater and dance] creates new pathways in their brains and improves their academic achievement in core subjects,” Rebecca says, adding that some studies have shown that areas in the brain stimulated by music are the same ones that light up when learning languages. Students who participate in music and arts education are also more motivated when it comes to academics and have better attendance records.

Student participating in dance class
Karla Sanchez Berlanga.


Gaspard Louis, founder and artistic director of Gaspard & Dancers, introduces different dance concepts to the aforementioned group of students during a series of workshops in September before the group showcases a final performance. Students imitate his movements and learn about spatial awareness by maneuvering around one another without touching. They practice how to make low, medium and high transitions as they move their bodies across the floor. And without realizing it, students work together through dance.

By the third day, about 200 students, ages 9 to 11, sit cross-legged in front of the professional dancers. The kids spot a favorite dancer, Garrett Parker, and begin chanting his name, “Garrett! Garrett! Garrett!” The crowd’s enthusiasm obliges him to perform a request from his young audience. He begins to break dance, and the crowd goes wild with squeals and applause. Once the children settle, they watch the troupe move through three choreographed pieces, which the company went on to perform in Wilmington, North Carolina, the Dominican Republic and Croatia.

Artists in Schools performer shows students an example
Tripp Thomas, Maria Rodriguez, Morgan Hazard and Aaron Montoya follow Marsha’s directions.

After the hourlong show, students ask the dancers questions: How old were they when they started dancing? How do they recover from mistakes on stage? One student even asks about financial security in pursuing the dance profession. “Follow your passion,” Gaspard responds. “Follow your love. Follow your dreams, and the money will come.”

With that said, the dancers wave their goodbyes, and the students form lines to return to their classrooms. Fifth grader Kristine Leon, 11, is beaming. “I think it was amazing,” she says. “I think it expresses your feelings.”


Phillip Shabazz at Pittsboro Elementary School – Jan. 18-20
Black Box Dance Theatre at Perry Harrison Elementary School – Jan. 18-20
Black Box Dance Theatre at Virginia Cross Elementary School – Jan. 23, 25, 26, 31

Black Box Dance Theatre at Virginia Cross – Feb. 2, 6-10
Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana at Bennett Elementary School – Feb. 15, 16, 20
Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana at Siler City Elementary School – Feb. 21-23

Diali Cissokho at Bonlee School – Mar. 6-10
Diali Cissokho at Chatham Charter School – Mar. 13-17

Black Box Dance Theatre at Chatham County Schools Virtual Academy
John Brown Jazz Band at Moncure School

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Anna-Rhesa Versola

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