Dance steps to literacy

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​Megan Zugelder has always been a dancer. She danced throughout her own school years, even danced professionally for Team USA. She followed her other passion, early childhood education, and became a literacy teacher at Winding Springs Elementary. But she missed dancing. 

"I loved teaching but there was just a huge piece of me missing," said Zugelder. "I missed dancing."

Zugelder began to include more dancing in her classroom and realized how much her students benefitted from it. She approached her principal five years ago about creating a dance program that incorporated literacy.

Today, Zugelder teaches dance to more than 1,000 Winding Springs students every week. Every student from kindergarten through fifth grade comes to Mr​s. Zugelder's class to dance as one of their special electives classes.

She teachers 43 dance classes every six days. She also leads the school's competitive dance team, a separate program.  Zugelder says the benefits for students range from health to learning. 

"They're getting the opportunity for more exercise, including cardio and strength training," said Zugelder. "Then we're able to meet the needs of many different learning styles and cross the curriculum to set the stage for academic growth."

Zugelder said that dancing is truly for everyone. 

"There are no language barriers. Dance appeals to so many different learning styles. Kids who struggle in other areas academically thrive in dance. It's really cool to see kids that will barely raise a hand to share a thought get on stage and perform enthusiastically."

Her fourth-grade students are currently learning about African dance, which enhances their academic on the continent. On a recent November morning, they began the class with warm-ups and stretches, then gathered around while Zugelder read them a book about culture and learning in Ghana. Then, each student took their mark on a spot of tape and got ready to dance.

After a few sets, Zugelder had some feedback from her students. 

"That was great," she said. "But it needs a little something special. What do you think we're missing?"

"Pizzazz!" shouts out one her students.

"That's right," said Zugelder. "Let's try that one more time."

Right now, Zugelder's students are rehearsing to perform at the school's International Festival in March. Each grade will perform dances from a different country. 

"We normally have a show in December," said Zugelder. "But considering how I am due to have my first child then, we're having to do things a little differently this year!"

Zugelder says watching her students grow has been the best part of this program. 

"Sometimes I'll start with a really shy kindergartener who is a very confident dancer by fourth grade," said Zugelder. "It's so exciting to watch them transform."

The Winding Springs program is an alternative to many private dance programs, which Zugelder says are often cost-prohibitive. 

"We can offer something for free, as a part of their education, that many children can't afford outside of school," she said.

The dance performances are filled to capacity and Zugelder says watching parents' reactions is the best part. 

"Some of these kids who were so painfully shy or scared and to see them take a chance and to get on stage and completely thrive makes their parents so proud. 'I didn't know my kid could do that!'"

Despite the young age of some her dancers, Zugelder teaches them difficult and intricate choreography. 

"We are focused of energy and precision," she said. "And I think, as teachers, if we set high standards, our students will work hard to meet them. I see it happen every day."

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