Near the end of a recent school day at Parkside Elementary School, two dozen girls hit the gym floor and danced themselves into a happy frenzy.
Twirling, clapping, waving their arms in well-rehearsed choreography, the first through third graders sang along with Kelly Clarkson’s inspiring anthem “Broken and Beautiful”:
I know I’m Superwoman, I know I’m strong,
I know I’ve got this ’cause I’ve had it all along.
I’m phenomenal and I’m enough.
I don’t need you to tell me who to be.
If it sounds like a female empowerment group, well, it is. Organized by third grade teacher Alyssa Scheidel, EmpowHER ½ Hour meets once a week during recess to let young girls feel their strength through the joy of dance. Judging from this performance, it does just that.
“It’s supposed to get you powered up,” said third grader Cassidy Mayo, a dance enthusiast and gymnast sporting a red ribbon in her hair. “It’s fun.”
What does being empowered mean to a third grade girl? Anna Cummins, though slight of frame and soft of voice, summed it up neatly: “You can be yourself. You have your own power to do what you want to do.”
That tracks closely with Scheidel’s aims when she formed the group earlier this school year. The idea stemmed from her work with Parkside’s committee on positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), focusing on constructive ways to address aggressive behavior at recess. Helping students develop friendships and positive interaction is a challenge in the elementary years, Scheidel said.
“They’re exposed to social media and that judgment piece, people looking at them and being just like everybody else, at such a young age now,” said Scheidel, a 2009 Rockford High graduate and third-year teacher. “If we can start teaching them at a young age to empower themselves and be themselves, I think that’s huge.”
A fast and fun way to feeling empowered is through dance, Scheidel knew from personal experience. As a former competitive gymnast who loves dancing, she has felt the feelings of freedom and self-connection that music and movement can bring.
“A lot of the empowerment comes from the music that I pick to use,” she said. “It’s inspiring, letting the words wash over them.”
First a Challenge, then Let’s Dance
Scheidel delivers the music through a portable sound system that Principal Larry Watters bought after she pitched the idea to him. She changes up the songs from week to week, and combines the dancing with pep talks about admirable character traits, such as a growth mindset, confidence and generosity.
At the recent session she talked about the importance of appreciation. She challenged them to tell one person each day for the following week what they appreciate about them. Afterward, Cassidy Mayo said she appreciates her mom, because “she’s very kind.” Anna Cummins named school, “because some kids can’t go to school.”
For Jeste Manie Hyzer, the answer was easy: EmpowHER, or “Power Half Hour,” as she called it. She wants to be a dancer, and a baker, and a gymnast.
The dream that powers Cassidy? Being an astronaut.
“I want to go to Mars,” she said. “I want to discover new things, like aliens.” Her dream may have been helped along by dancing to Kelly Clarkson singing, “The only way to live now is to know you’re gonna fly.”