Seth Boyden stepping program empowers students thanks to AIE grant

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Seth Boyden Elementary school students are finding their power and joy through an innovative stepping program made possible for the second year in a row by a grant from the Artists in Education Residency Grant Program. The residency combines instruction in the physical movement of stepping, with instruction in the history of the art form and its importance in black culture. 

Seth Boyden’s AIE grant application for $11,000 from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts was accepted last June and professional stepping artist Maxine Lyle, founder of the renowned troupe Soul Steps, began workshops with fifth-graders on March 22. An additional grant, the Dance to Learn Residency Grant by Dance New Jersey and Young Audiences Arts for Learning, supported similar workshops for third-graders. 

In each workshop, students learned and reviewed a variety of stepping movements as they developed their own step routine for the residency’s final performance. The lessons were often accompanied by history discussions on topics such as the precursors of stepping in South African gumboot dancing. These discussions also raised issues of social justice as it relates to the history of stepping. Each workshop ended with the students rising together and saying in unison, “Hear me. See me. Feel me. I have power.” 

Fifth-grader Malik Ouedraogo said one of the things he likes about the workshops is the feeling of community and the idea that “we can communicate without talking.” 

According to Lyle, the feelings of togetherness are part of the goal, especially for students living through difficult times. 

“One of my mentors said you have to get down to get up — meaning dance it out, work out feelings that may be there,” Lyle said. “With stepping you are tapping into other people doing the same rhythms, and you know you are not alone — you are part of a community. During hard times, the Jim Crow years, stepping was an important reminder that came out of a need to know you were not alone. The rhythm tells you that.” 

Seth Boyden Principal Shannon Glander, Assistant Principal Sheila Murphy, fifth-grade teacher Krista Maciorowski and alumna parent Alison Poe form part of the steering committee for the grant. The Seth Boyden PTA supported the residency with T-shirts and by creating documentation of the workshops, including a video by documentary filmmaker Erin Harper, a Seth Boyden parent. The school received its first AIE grant last year for a residency that was conducted remotely between the third-graders and stepping troupe SOLE Defined. Third-grade teacher Rosemary Connell formed part of the steering committee for that grant, as did the originators of the application process, then–Seth Boyden PTA President Elizabeth Leonard Evangelista and PTA assemblies coordinator Susanna Einstein. Harper donated her time and talents to capture some of the workshops on film to share with families. 

The students’ hard work culminated in a performance for classmates in early June and another at the fifth-grade moving-up celebration. Though recent school years have been dominated by isolation and the need to keep children separate, Seth Boyden has found a way to bring them back together — in lock step. 

Photos Courtesy of Anna Herbst Photography