Elisa Olds and Rachel Sizeler-Fletcher dance at the American Legion Post 43 before the Belfast Flying Shoes contradance on April 2, 2010, in Belfast. Credit: John Clarke Russ / BDN

A Belfast nonprofit is using song, dance and movement to help local students who have only been to school during the COVID-19 pandemic learn how to build community.

Flying Shoes, Belfast’s contra dance and music nonprofit, is preparing to launch classroom programming for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade at Regional School Unit 71. The programming will help them build social and emotional learning skills through group dancing, singalongs and movement exercises.

Flying Shoes believes that dancing and songs have the power to help children learn how to build community amid a pandemic that is having profound effects on their social and emotional skills.

“During the pandemic, [children] weren’t encouraged to sit at a table face to face with each other and collaborate on things together … Our particular forms of participatory dance and music are very good at connecting people and helping them really understand ‘you all have to work together,’” Flying Shoes Director Chrissy Fowler said.

Flying Shoes launched in 2005 as a monthly contra dance series. By 2009, as a certified nonprofit, Flying Shoes expanded out of dance halls and into classrooms, nursing homes and libraries. The organization has since been running song and dance programming in RSU 71 and RSU 20.

pandemic impacts on students’ mental health

Nearly three years into the pandemic, educators and teachers believe their students are falling behind in their social and emotional skills — an ability to manage emotions, form healthy identities, become socially aware and build relationships with others, according to 2021 studies from RAND and Dominican University of California. The work Flying Shoes is doing aims to help with that.

“In pandemic conditions, you can’t sit near people, physical contact is a big problem. That really impacts social emotional growth and learning, which impacts classroom dynamics, impacts what children can learn if they don’t feel safe and comfortable, especially in a group of people,” Fowler said.

Gladys Weymouth and Ames Elementary schools Principal Glen Widmer said he’s seen these impacts manifest inside classrooms, especially in how children learn to speak to one another and harmoniously share a physical space.

“They’re bouncing back pretty quickly, but that said, there are some greater needs,” he said.

This programming, funded by a grant from Maine Community Foundation, will be an opportunity for kids to learn how to connect with each other again through contra dancing, finger plays, movement games, and sing-alongs. 

Fowler said that there are benefits in overarching activities like learning how to dance in an organized group and in something as simple as learning how to ask another student to dance with them.

“It’s a lot of social emotional learning skills, little habits, little scripts that help children practice treating each other as a community,” Fowler said.

And of course, Widmer said, it’ll be a dedicated time for happiness and fun.

“I feel there was a kind of a dark pall over all of us, pandemic, and maybe we lost track of what joy looks like and feels like,” Widmer said. “There’s the joy that comes from when these kids are dancing with one another, when everybody has a big smile on their face.”

Flying Shoes will be bringing visiting artists to RSU 71’s East Belfast, Ames, Weymouth and Captain Albert schools during the day to run dance classes, music classes and movement classes with the younger kids. Visiting artists will include Ethan Tischler, Ando Anderson and Jennifer Armstrong.

The programming will also be an opportunity for the visiting artists and teachers to collaborate and learn from one another. The programs will be informed by what lessons teachers are teaching their students in the classroom, Fowler said.

“It will really depend on what the teaching artists and their collaborating classroom teachers feel are the priorities,” Fowler said.