Uncovering Trust and Discovering Joy: Reflections on the “Exploring Movement” Partnership with Young Elementary

by Elizabeth Matthews, Louisville Ballet Outreach Program Manager

In fall 2019, through sponsorship from The Gheens Foundation, Louisville Ballet introduced a new Exploring Movement Partnership Residency at Whitney M. Young Elementary. This program engaged every Young Elementary third grade student in an eight-week dance residency with LB teaching artists. The program culminated with participants attending a student matinee performance of The Brown-Forman Nutcracker in December.

I always have a bit of nervous excitement at the start of a residency. I’m hopeful that they will be excited and open to new experiences, and that all of the planning and creating I have done before walking in the door will pay off. However, I know that each group of students is unique and the best plans are adaptable to meet the needs of the students in front of me. The first week I was at Young Elementary, I quickly noticed that these young people were a bit apprehensive about this experience, and it was clear that first and foremost, I would need to earn their trust. So I set aside my lesson plans for a moment, and we played the name game. The instructions were simple- tell us your name and do a movement and the group responds saying your name and doing your movement. Some kids were excited to share a popular move, while others didn’t want to share any movement, but I made it a priority that each student participated. If I hadn’t seen the movement before, I let them teach me, and if they were hesitant, I drew a movement out of their gestures/body language. As we played, I let them see me be willing to try new things and put myself out there even if it made me look silly. Plus, by taking that time to learn each student’s name meant for the rest of our time together, we had established an individual connection to help me engage with each student personally. We may not have gotten through everything on the lesson plan that day, but taking those extra minutes made all future sessions more productive and more fun because they knew that I was committed to including them in the experience.

I wasn’t just teaching to them, we were learning and growing together.

One moment that really exemplified that team learning and growth was when I introduced Tokyo Dontaku, a Japanese cultural dance traditionally performed during the Obon Festival. The students had been learning about Japanese culture, and it was really exciting to integrate what they were doing in the classroom into our dance class. It gave the students a deeper experience in both settings. They enjoyed reflecting on how the traditions they had been learning about influenced certain movements. They were able to effectively communicate verbally and non-verbally about the similarities and differences between Japanese and American culture, developing cultural competencies and choosing to be resilient in their learning of the movements and the story behind them. It was fun to see leaders emerge in the room sharing their knowledge in different ways, from demonstrating movement patterns to sharing verbally the information they had learned about Japanese culture in order to all build a meaningful experience for everyone in the room.

Moments like that are sometimes serendipitous, but more often they are a team effort made possible by the dedicated educators and school staff on-site at a residency.

At Young Elementary, it was absolutely a team effort and I am so grateful for the commitment of each of the staff members to making this a successful program for their third grade students. The lines of communication were always open and so many people were willing to put in extra time, energy and effort to make sure that this program would make an impact on their students. They recognized the value of the arts for their kids and made sure that it could be the best experience possible. I could not have done it without them, and I think their own words sum it up best:

Dr. Arivia Parks
Assistant Principal, WYES
“I am so grateful that the Louisville Ballet came to WYES. Our students were enthusiastic about the program, and still talk about the experience that Mrs. Matthews and the team provided. I saw our students go from many instances of non-compliance, to full engagement from every 3rd grade classroom. The students learned positive interactive social skills, while being exposed to movement and dance in a way that many of them have never experienced, and may never again. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

Jabani Bennet
Art & Music Teacher, WYES:

“I would like to thank the Louisville Ballet, the Gheens Foundation and my school leaders for creating such a memorable experience in dance. Through arts and culture presented in the Exploring Movement Partnership program, my third grade students were transformed into confident dancers. We have a long way to go to be dance professionals, yet the Louisville Ballet offered a launchpad for future enriching experiences in the arts. As an Art/ Music teacher, I appreciated each session as well. I love to dance. Thank you!”

Ahmad Neeley
Security Monitor, WYES

“It was more of an honor than a privilege having you guys come to Whitney Young Elementary School to teach the children the different types of ballet dances. I am so glad that I got to be included in all activities as well. You all did an amazing job at the school, as well as on stage. It was definitely an experience that I will never forget.”


The growth evident in the students over the course of our eight lessons was really something special. The students’ kinesthetic awareness improved as they learned how to create, perform and respond to various styles of movement through creative, social and folk dances. However, what these students gleaned from this program went beyond dance. The growth in self-expression, self-confidence, creativity, communication, critical thinking, and collaboration was pretty astounding. There were students who were too nervous to participate in early classes that on the final day were volunteering to demonstrate and lead the group. I had a student who wasn’t willing to share a movement during the name game, who told me “I don’t dance.” That same student took my breath away with the expressive movement she created when given the opportunity four classes in. Working with partners and groups was a regular occurrence in class, and at first there were constant struggles over who students were willing to work with. So I was very proud when we started working on a dance called “La Raspa” where students had to work closely with a partner to coordinate their movements. It wasn’t without hiccups, but everyone participated, and each partnership found ways to collaborate and communicate to reach their goal.

However, it wasn’t just the staff or myself that recognized these successes; the students saw their own growth. They shared on our very last day how dancing made them feel, and those responses included: Happy, brave, confident, good inside and joyful. They recognized that dance class gave them a place to express themselves, to discover that they were capable, and to build community.

One student shared, “I love when you teach us to dance all together and exercise too. We will not forget what you did for us. We all love you.”

While our time together was limited, I love these students, and will definitely not forget them and all that we accomplished together.