Kindergartners, first- and second-graders at Manatee Elementary School get a chance to put aside their books and kick up their heels when they get to Patricia Sandick's class.
She's teaching them to square dance.
No matter what their background or culture, language or heritage, they become one when the music starts and the rhythm drifts into their souls.
Sandick knows what she's doing: She is making them one, and they spread their new-found dancing skills into their families and community.
The United Arts Council of Collier County discovered Sandick and her square-dance classes and gave her a $700 grant for her project, which she calls "Sweetheart Square Dance / Celebration of Americana."
"I have been teaching square dancing, off and on, for 30 years," Sandick said. I learned to appreciate the square dance as an activity/tool that crosses — or transcends — language, cultural and social barriers back in the 70's when I used it with an interesting mixture of students in southern Maryland tobacco fields."
In the 1990s Sandick used it with great success in Immokalee when she taught there.
"People of all ages appreciate the simple moves and rhythms, and the role of the square dance as a vehicle to get closer to each other," she said. "It is a part of our history/heritage with which migrants and immigrants are not familiar."
It doesn't matter that migrants and immigrants aren't familiar with America's version of square dancing. Look at the faces of the children, Sandick said, and you can see how much they love it.
Elaine Hamilton, executive director of the United Arts Council, said Sandick's "Americana" square-dancing project caught the eye of the grant-selection committee because of its innovation and appeal to the community.
"It has a lot of community spirit. It connects art and music," Hamilton said. "We just kind of like the mix of visual art and dance. Patti Sandick is a wonderful teacher. She's won grants from us before."
This year Sandick is focusing on kindergarten, first and second grades, with probably more than 500 students altogether.
She's been working with the arts council as a teaching artist for keyboard for three years.
"I grew to appreciate the wonderful resource that the UAC is for our Naples community," Sandick said. "Last year I received the first square-dance grant, and implemented it here at Manatee (Elementary). This year's project is designed to build upon last year's work in cross-cultural community involvement."
Manatee Elementary, because of its strategic location near Collier County's agricultural centers and large populations of migrant workers, has a student body made up largely of children from Hispanic, Haitian and other ethnic-origin families. Square dancing is ideal, as Sandick says, for melting the cultural barriers and giving the children some commonality — and fun.
Last year she received $800 from United Arts Council for the square-dance project, and $1,800 from the Collier County Education Foundation for a tubano-drum project.
"The children have so much confidence that they actually will teach their parents to dance the night of the culmination activity, which will be from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at Manatee Elementary," she said.
Manny Touron, principal of Immokalee High School, is scheduled to appear and sing a song, a tribute to the migrant families, from his new CD that night to kick off the square dance.
Sandick said she uses nothing special in her square-dance project.
"I use a basic square-dancing CD that is simple to follow. At the advanced level, we actually do creative 'calls' ourselves to whatever kind of music the children like," she said. "We have, as a goal in our (school) district, parental and community involvement as a means to become more effective with our students."
"The students sense that we are all working together on their behalf, and truly appreciate it," she said. "Other groups will be involved, such as senior volunteers and college volunteers. I try to incorporate many cultures, many age groups."
Sandick said another reason she does the square-dance project is because it is great fun for her, too.
"I get pleasure from watching others develop as friends, mentors ... Square dancing is one of the most effective tools for reaching multicultural groups in communities such as ours."