03/08/2012 12:34 EST | Updated 05/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian dance education company encourages kids to step to their own beat

TORONTO - With each new tune pumping through the speakers, the energetic students seamlessly transform from mimicking the limber movements of a monkey to simulating the rapid-fire hand motions of a seasoned drummer.

It's likely not what most would expect from a typical dance class — but it's just how Michelle Hillier likes it.

Hillier is the founder of Fit2Dance, a Canadian dance education company with a program aimed at getting children moving. Rather than having kids follow choreographed steps, the GROOVE method KIDS program encourages youngsters to put their own footprint on dance-inspired movements.

"Dance education is about kids moving their bodies, expressing their personal feelings and ideas and just having fun through movement," said Hillier, who formerly taught dance and drama to high school students.

"That's what drove me to create the program: to let kids just dance without all those rules and restrictions that we put on dance. But that's why teachers aren't teaching dance — because they feel that that's what they have to do."

Research was conducted to determine the skills kids need to be developing from a fundamental movement standpoint, such as skipping, galloping, running, balancing and rolling, Hillier noted.

On a recent snowy morning at a Toronto elementary school, instructor Amy Tepperman led youngsters in movements inspired by such dance genres as hip-hop, bhangra, African and tango. Students bounded about the gym while following her instructions to jump, stomp, lunge, hop, balance on one leg, clasp their hands, flick their wrists and strike a pose — all while stepping to their own beat.

"How weird can you make your shapes?" she bellowed, as the students contorted their bodies.

Fit2Dance takes the program to more than 250 schools in Ontario, and plans are underway to expand within Canada, the U.S. and Australia. In the meantime, the Toronto-based company will be getting fellow fitness enthusiasts in the groove south of the border.

Fit2Dance will be the lone Canadian company on the roster at a special session associated with the "Let's Move in School" initiative. The session will be held during the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance National Convention and Exposition in Boston on March 13.

Hillier said the company applied last spring to be involved, and learned last fall they were among eight programs invited to showcase physical activity and dance in schools.

"Let's Move in School" is in support of the "Let's Move!" initiative to combat childhood obesity championed by Michelle Obama, wife of U.S. President Barack Obama. AAHPERD backs the goal of the first lady's campaign, and commits to giving educators and parents the support needed to help kids become more physically active.

Revised guidelines released last year by the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommend Canadian children and youth aged five to 17 get at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity daily. However, data from the Canadian Health Measures Survey found that only nine per cent of boys and four per cent of girls were meeting those targets, according to the 2011 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card.

Hillier said their current focus is on curriculum-based in-school work and having teachers embrace their message of getting students moving through dance that they can, in turn, pass along to kids' parents. But following the AAHPERD conference, Hillier said she and her team could perhaps explore starting their own wellness initiative.

Beyond encouraging a free-form approach to dance, Hillier also believes GROOVE method KIDS is helping teach kids life skills through risk-taking, creativity, character-building and communication.

"We have kids working with each other a lot, high-fiving, do-si-do-ing and interacting," she said.

"Even if they're never going to dance again in their life or later after school, we've shown them ways they can think out of the box and be creative because our program allows every student to look different."




AAHPERD Convention and Exposition: