Alex Grant places a pattern of hula hoops down the sloped aisles of Orchard Knob Middle School’s auditorium. She drops a set of jump ropes on the ground to cap off each aisle, then settles on the side of the stage to sit and wait for her group of students to show up after study hall.
Three days a week, Grant, a UTC graduate student studying physical activity and health in the Department of Health and Human Performance, visits Orchard Knob with a group of undergraduate interns, engaging students with a program called DANCE (Determining Adolescent’s Needs for Culturally Appropriate Exercises).
DANCE was designed to connect with students who are considered nontraditional athletes. Because they don’t participate in typical sports like soccer or baseball, they are likely to be less physically active. Through DANCE, UTC students introduce middle schoolers to alternative forms of exercise that easily fit into their lifestyle and day-to-day activities.
“The kids teach me how to be flexible and creative and to remember to bring fun into all the other avenues of my life,” Grant says. “It’s really rewarding to be involved in a project that is truly dedicated to helping make a difference in their day.”
From learning dance steps to Beyoncé’s “Formation” to competitive relay races through the Orchard Knob auditorium to practicing yoga and mindfulness, for the group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, the DANCE program has become more than a glorified P.E. class.
“The DANCE program definitely has had a positive impact on our students,” explains Cheryl McCray, dean of students at Orchard Knob Middle School.
In addition to making exercise fun, the UTC students running DANCE “have also formed relationships with students as mentors and role models,” she says. “The students look forward to seeing them every week, and are excited to share what they have learned.”
Grant says she and her fellow interns working with DANCE aren’t the students’ teachers and aren’t their peers, so they have a unique opportunity to engage with them.
“We’re this gray area with them. We get to kind of connect with them on a different level,” she says.
In addition to physical activity, the DANCE curriculum highlights nutrition, self-esteem and self-efficiency.
Orchard Knob along with four other schools in Hamilton County —Brainerd High School, Dalewood Middle School, Woodmore and Orchard Knob Elementary Schools— is identified as an Opportunity Zone school, also known as iZone. The schools in the zone receive targeted support with a heightened urgency of improvement because of poor academic performance.
“These kids have just … they’ve been through life already,” Grant says.
When she reached out to parents at the beginning of the program at Orchard Knob, she received mixed responses. But one response really stood out. Grant quotes the mother:
“‘Listen, I don’t really care about your program. And I don’t mean that in a mean way, but I want to know that my kid is off the street. I want to know my kid is safe … So I know that he doesn’t necessarily want to dance, but I want him there.’”
DANCE started in a health service learning course out of the Health and Human Performance program led by Dr. Shewanee Howard-Baptiste, associate professor in UTC’s Exercise Science program. A group of students who were also dancers with UTC’s Sugar Mocs came up with the curriculum for teaching healthy habits through dancing.
After spending two years at East Lake Academy, the program grew to include Orchard Knob last fall.
Translating what they’ve learned in the classroom to a group of middle-school students, Grant says, is giving invaluable exposure to her and the undergraduate students. The boots-on-the-ground opportunity provides administrative and face-to-face coaching to supplement her knowledge of the materials she teaches middle schoolers every week.
DANCE also has provided a chance for the undergraduates to highlight their individual interests and bring their knowledge to the table. Some students come to the program with education experience from summer camps and MobileFit programs at the YMCA; another student is majoring in nutrition. Combined, they round out the DANCE program and make it more beneficial to the middle schoolers.
DANCE also is part of ongoing research to measure how well the program increases the middle schoolers’ physical activity. By tracking their activity for a week at the beginning of the program and again at the end, the numbers show a steady increase in how Orchard Knob students are on the move.