That first summer, seven kids took part in Celebrate the Beat’s Pop Hop program and artistic director and founder Tracy Straus felt lucky to have that many. Despite hanging flyers and advertising the program, no kids showed up. Not one to see the fledgling program die before it even had a chance to fly, Dance Festival Director Damian Woetzel and his wife, Heather Watts, went to the trailer park near Avon Elementary School, where the program was to be held, and recruited families to let their little ones take part, Straus says.
This summer, Straus and her cohorts in the beloved music-and-dance program have the opposite situation: It’s become so popular they will be forced to choose which kids, age 9 to 12, can take part. There’s only room for 120 participants — otherwise they start worrying about kids falling off the stage, Straus joked.
“What I love so much about this program is it grows organically,” Straus says. “It’s like supply and demand. Families have never experienced anything like this and it’s free — people are blown away and they just keep coming back.”
The kids come back because they love it. Straus uses the word “infectious” to describe the energy, and she’s right. Music and movement comprise the foundation of any Celebrate the Beat (CTB) program, which is led by three teaching artists — a lead, a master assistant and a live musician. “It’s a very powerful team,” Straus said.
The team starts each class with call and response to get the kids engaged. “We immediately challenge the children,” she says. “We’ll ask them to spin to the ground for eight counts and soon everyone forgets about any nervousness.”
All of the teachers are trained to work with kids of all levels. Each child is pushed — albeit gently — to their own next level.
“It’s extremely safe. It’s based on pedestrian movement — it’s something anyone can do,” Straus says.
Battle Mountain High School student Joslyn Sanchez started participating in the Celebrate the Beat program at Avon Elementary School when she was seven years old and continued with the program for seven years. The word “safe” is a word you’ll hear Sanchez use a lot when talking about Celebrate the Beat. Over the years she watched as her peers stepped out of their comfort zones and blossomed.
“I could see they were really loving it and they felt like they were being accepted, felt like they could be themselves in that environment,” she says. “The teachers tell you to ‘be who you are.’ A lot of my friends took it for real and did that. Celebrate the Beat was a safe place for us, that’s why we continued. It made us feel accepted and that we could be who we wanted to be.”
During her time with CTB, Sanchez made memories she’ll treasure for a lifetime, like dancing while renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed at the Vail International Dance Festival. She also got to perform on stage at the Festival with Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley, an L.A.-based dancer who brought the freestyle dance “jookin’” to enthusiastic Dance Festival audiences the last few years.
“Those performances during the [Vail International] Dance Festival were the most inspiring,” she says. “The people there aren’t just our parents, they are people who appreciate the arts so when they stand up and give you a standing ovation, it’s really meaningful. They appreciate what you’re doing and enjoyed having us there.”
Now in high school, Sanchez attributes her participation on the dance team and in the high school musicals to her time with Celebrate the Beat, which ignited her love of performing.
Celebrate the Beat is the Colorado associate of the National Dance Institute, where Straus also serves as artistic associate. It was born in 2000, when Straus was hired by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to start an outreach program in the Roaring Fork School District. The program was in five schools that first year and served 150 kids. Soon after, Straus took the program and it became a 501c3.
In an effort to expand the Vail International Dance Festival’s reach within the community, Woetzel added Celebrate the Beat to the mix in 2006. Soon the program expanded into the local schools. What started as a three-week residency in one school — Avon Elementary — is now cemented in ten schools around the county.
“Often times the schools approach us,” Straus says. “We do our best to serve as many as possible under the support of the Vail Valley Foundation.
“The arts have a unique ability to transform children’s lives,” Straus continues. “Our mission is really to use the arts to improve every child’s experience with learning and, in a sense, make them so passionate about learning that the joy, exuberance, teamwork and discipline they experience in Celebrate the Beat spills over into other aspects of school.”
Teachers and principals have seen it firsthand, including Melisa Rewold-Thuon, who was the principal at Avon Elementary School when Celebrate the Beat first started there; she’s now the vice president of education for the Vail Valley Foundation’s YouthPower 365 programs.
“The teachers would say the kids were more alert, ready to learn and had more energy and focus following Celebrate the Beat. During a test study with the University of Northern Colorado, some kids did math facts before they went to Celebrate the Beat and then again after the program; their scores improved,” Rewold-Thuon says.
“Something I’ve always loved about the program is we’d have certain kids who just never seemed engaged and they would perk up in this program,” she reminisces. “The instructors do a great job making sure all the kids are participating and feeling part of the group and excited and motivated. It really builds up their self esteem.”
Along with the Roaring Fork Valley and Eagle County, Celebrate the Beat is in six schools, and in Nayarit, Mexico, spurred by the chair of the Celebrate the Beat Board, Argie Ligeros.
The program is rapidly expanding in Denver, where it recently received a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to offer up to 200 children 6 weeks of daily programming this summer in Commerce City Adams 14 district, a predominately low-income Latino population; nearly 85 percent of the students are on the free or reduced-cost lunch program.
“Ten percent of the students struggle with homelessness, and the district test scores are in the bottom five percent in the state. Many of these children face issues such as poverty, hunger, emotional trauma, homelessness, instability and inconsistency in their lives,” says Heather Kratz, the Denver program director and a master teacher who formerly ran the Eagle County program.
Over the years, Kratz has seen dramatic transformations take place in children who experience Celebrate the Beat, which she calls her “greatest joy and reward.”
“I’ve seen children who at first refused to participate in anyway, grow to be outgoing leaders in our classes and have seen that leadership and confidence transfer to their classrooms and into their lives. We see them gain confidence and, in turn, encourage their peers to take risks and be brave.”