The music starts and Annie Beserra, standing in the center of a circle of 8th graders at Saints Faith, Hope & Charity Catholic School, counts off: “5-6-7-8!”
The students strike a pose, then bounce away from the circle, come back in, jump up, turn around and hit their landing. It’s a bit messy, but the 37 students, who are making up their own choreography, are laughing, not stressing about getting it right.
As artistic director of Striding Lion, an organization that does residencies at schools to help students create original performance pieces, Beserra is guiding these students in writing their own musical called “Missing on Prom Night.”
Striding Lion’s goal is to encourage kids to express themselves through music, dance and acting in creative, collaborative projects. Private donations and state funding enable the group to bring this multidisciplinary arts program to underserved schools throughout Chicago and the suburbs.
Usually, two Striding Lion instructors work with 20 to 30 kids to create songs and movements inspired by source material. At a recent residency at Oakton Elementary School in Evanston, students read Native American stories and then were asked to move like characters in the stories, such as the raven, the wind or water.
At Faith Hope, however, there was no source material. Instead, students decided to build a musical around a hodge-podge of ’70s disco and Scooby Doo.
“They do a lot of improvisational movements to learn about the quality of motion,” says Beserra, who also teaches dance at Northwestern. “We’re basically trying to teach them the vocabulary of movement.”
Students learn terms like rhythm, dynamics and tempo―and how they relate to both music and dance. Then they’re let loose to use their imagination.
By creating their own works, Beserra says the students start to see themselves as artists. “They come out of this and think, ‘Wow, I made that.’ There is a very clear owning of their voice that they develop,” she says.
At Faith Hope, students wrote numbers based off of songs by Pink and Ke$ha’s “Tick Tock.”
“Here you use your own imagination,” says Alex Thomas, 13, of Wilmette. “All this choreography you have to work together on. It’s not just one person.”
Charlie Murray, 14, of Wilmette, says he was glad he was forced to try dancing and acting.
“It’s nice to know you’ll always have this experience,” he says.