Dance Beauty Beast
Photo credit: Christin J. Slatt

As you walk into the high school auditorium, it is thinly veiled chaos. Ten- and eleven-year-olds run rampant…some of them quite literally. The air is filled with nervous excitement and the excited chatter of fifth graders trusted to step on the very stage where the big kids perform.

It is five days before the curtain goes up on the third annual production of the 5th grade musical at Hillcrest Intermediate School at Norwin School District in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. The group is known as “The Jansons,” so dubbed because of the names of its two founders: Mrs. Janov and Mr. Swenson, assisted by Mrs. Schehr.

Thom Swenson is a 5th grade teacher at Hillcrest and director of the Jansons. “The goal of the Jansons is to provide a theatrical experience where students can use their talents in singing, dancing, and drama to develop socially in a new learning environment while making a difference in their local community. Students are given the chance to meet new people that they would not interact with during the school day,” he says.

This is significant because in this school district, there are four different elementary schools (K-4). Grades 5 and 6 attend Hillcrest; it is the first time these kids have all be funneled into the same school. In a situation where kids know only a quarter of their fellow students, the production is a great way to get to know new people. It diffuses the social awkwardness that begins to affect tweenage kids.

beautybeast2Photo credit:
Christin J. Slatt
Fifth-grader Keeghan Murray was cast in the role of the Beast, though he was originally eyeing the part of Gaston. “I think his character is funny, but the Beast is cool too,” he concedes. “I like everything about my part—especially wearing a cool costume.  My friends think it is cool. Plus, I like to sing and perform for people. The hardest part is memorizing all the lines along with homework and hockey practice.”

Keeghan’s mom, Jodi Murray, knew it would be a lot to handle. “It was a commitment for him and [I] explained that before he auditioned, and then again when he got a lead role. It was really important for him to understand his responsibility with that part.”

Juggling responsibilities isn’t easy on the faculty, either. “The most difficult part is the time commitment.  We maintain our 40-hour a week job while staying after school from October to February for practice.  There never seems to be enough hours in the day to get everything completed,” Mr. Swenson said.

Still, the experience is definitely valuable. “I think the biggest thing he learned was responsibility and an appreciation for the process,” Jodi said. “Getting your child in any kind of art program is worthwhile for so many reasons.  It makes them appreciate all that goes into the production, it creates team skills, [teaches] responsibility and just helps make them more well rounded.”

Mr. Swenson couldn’t agree more. “The rewards are endless.  The student who has never been in a production or doesn’t like to speak in front of people has the opportunity to ‘blend’ into the ensemble. These students wouldn’t audition for another show because they aren’t confident or experienced,” he explains. “A couple of these students have mentioned that maybe in the future they’d try for a speaking part. The students who are comfortable on stage have the opportunity to refine and enhance their skills. All these students understand and experience music cues, audience participation, and the fun of a live show.”

To be continued! Read more about the program here