Art / Education

At MS 424, hip hop is a gateway to new worlds

Photo by Stephanie Rabins

Students work on new steps in hip hop dance class

Bronx Arts Ensemble brings dance and music to Hunts Point

“Rock That Body” by Black Eyed Peas pumps through the stereo in the dance classroom of Middle School 424 on Bryant Avenue, where 20 seventh and eighth grade honors students pop, lock and drop to the beat.

“Hip op is really fun,” says student Ilearis Fernandez. “It helps with school and gives me more energy.”

Leading the dancers is Lisa Aronowitz, a “Teaching Artist” from the Bronx Arts Ensemble, a not-for-profit music organization that works with public schools to bring art and music to the classroom. Every Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon, the students work together, moving to the beat in sync as they rehearse Aronowitz’s choreography and listen as she provides the class with inspirational messages.

“Do you want to get into a competitive arts school?” Aronowitz asks. They do, they respond enthusiastically. “Then you have to work hard!” she says.

hunts point dance from Hunts Point on Vimeo.

The students were chosen not just for their dancing but for their grades, but several hope to be accepted into the city’s specialized arts schools. Among them is. Jeanette Pena, who plans to audition at LaGuardia High School in dance, and her classmate Tiana Taylor will audition at Fordham School for the Arts, also in dance.

They are talented, says Aronowitz, herself a graduate of Fordham High School for the Arts. But she adds, she wants to help them “grow as people and as dancers, because dance is not just a step, it’s what you put into that step and what you make out of it that is important.”

“Dance is fun,” explained student Sabrina Trim. “It helps clear your mind.”

The purpose of dance classes isn’t just to produce polished performers, agrees Camille Rodriguez, MS 424’s arts coordinator. All the school’s students are required to take dance. “Students learn to cooperate, integrate and think strategically,” Rodriguez said.

MS 424 acknowledged
for student progress

For years, the middle school at 730 Bryant Avenue was branded a failure. No longer.

MS 424, the Hunts Point Middle School, has been removed from the state’s list of failing schools. The school “achieved their previously established performance targets,” and is no longer in danger of being closed by the state’s education department and reorganized, said Jonathan Burman, a department spokesman.

“I was a little surprised, but happy at the same time,” said John Hughes, the school’s principal. “We still have a long way to go, but they recognized the fact we’re on an upward trend.”

“It’s a real validation of the work we’ve done over the last three years,” he said.

Ten years ago, education officials closed the school, which at the time combined elementary school and middle school grades and was called PS/IS 74. By then it had been on the state’s list of failures for years.

The school reopened with a new principal in 2000 as IS 201, the STAR Academy, only to be closed again in 2008.

By then, Hughes, formerly the principal of PS 48, had taken over, and about half the school’s staff had been replaced.

“It was a dismally failing school. I’m very proud of the staff, we’re very proud of the students,” Hughes said.

The ultimate goal, she said in an email message, is to expose the students to unfamiliar art forms. “Hip hop is more of a hook into the students’ comfort zone, but we quickly keep that genre then add on the multifaceted world of Arts,” bringing in theater, other musical forms and fine arts, she wrote.

Last year, for example, the Bronx Arts Ensemble’s collaboration with the school resulted in a performance of excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays and “West Side Story,” the Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The performance received rave reviews.

While MS 424 strives to maintain a robust arts program, at many schools the arts cupboard is bare, according to Myra Medina, an education associate at the Bronx Arts Ensemble.

When funds run short, “the arts are usually what suffer,” said Medina, who contends that without arts programs other aspects of academic performance suffer as well. “Students benefit so much from the arts; their focus is much better; they improve,” she said.

“When arts programs are cut, you lose a lot of the kids,” said Principal John Hughes. “The arts bring students closer to academics. Art in itself is an infusion of math and language arts that help provide a well rounded educational experience.”

“You practice more and more and begin to show yourself off,” says student Jerry Bueno. “It helps with your self esteem!”

Bronx Borough President, Ruben Diaz Jr. agrees. He still remembers an art project he did at PS 31 on the Grand Concourse when he was 9 or 10 years old. It wound up being shown on a TV news show.

“What is so important about the arts is the confidence it builds to those young men and women who are actually engaging in it,” he said in an interview in which he called for arts funding to be immune from budget cuts. “That confidence I think has helped to shape who I am today.”

In May, this year’s Hip Hop students will put on a dance recital to showcase their work. The recital will be open to the public, and MS 424 encourages residents and families to attend.

“It is indescribable the feeling I get when watching students perform at the end of the journey,” says dance teacher Aronowitz. “You can change their lives in a positive way, and in return they touch my heart.”

A version of this story appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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