LAME DEER — The arts were front and center Monday at Lame Deer High School and Junior High.
Arts professionals — three musicians and a dancer — came to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation town to share their talents with students over two days. On Tuesday, the performers and junior high students will join together for a public performance.
Their visit is part of Turnaround Arts, a national program designed to use the arts to help eight low-performing elementary and middle schools boost student participation and achievement.
Lame Deer Junior High was chosen in the spring to take part in the initiative. Turnaround Arts brought retired New York City ballet dancer Damian Woetzel and three members of the Silk Road Ensemble.
At a morning assembly, half of the school’s gymnasium was occupied by junior and senior students, as well as the town’s elementary students. A trio of tepees decorated the gym floor.
A drum group sang a flag song, followed by an honor song, and then three dancers in colorful costumes took to the floor.
Marvin Garcia, a student, danced at the center of the gym, twirling and stepping to the beat of the drum, as Woetzel and the musicians looked on in obvious enjoyment. Marvin was joined by his sisters, Marleah and Marlena.
Then it was time for the Silk Road Ensemble musicians. The group, under the artistic direction of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, includes musicians from more than 20 countries.
Kojiro “Ko” Umezaki grabbed the Lame Deer students’ attention when he emerged from one corner of the gym playing a shakuhachi, or Japanese flute.
From another corner came Shane Shanahan, of New York City, a percussionist who played a Middle Eastern drum something like a tambourine. He played a solo and then was joined by Umezaki in a lyrical piece.
Cristina Pato, of Spain, sang a piercing melody, and then played Galician bagpipes. She and Woetzel soon got the students clapping and then stomping their feet, as she played and the other two musicians joined in.
Woetzel is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which conceived the two-year arts education initiative. He talked to the students about performing and its risks.
“When I was a dancer, I wasn’t sure how it would go, I couldn’t know for sure,” he said. “But that didn’t mean that I didn’t do it.”
If he thought he could only do two turns, or pirouettes, then that’s all he did, Woetzel said. But if he pictured in his mind that he could do four, he might do better.
He demonstrated the ballet move, first turning twice, then turning five times.
“It’s a matter of effort and dreams and standing up,” he told the students. “There’s a cliché, ‘when you go to the dance, if you stand on the side, you miss everything.’ You have to come out and dance.”
On that note, Woetzel had the students stand up and he taught them a simple dance involving their hands and feet in what he called “a version of another sort of blessing.” Most students mastered the movements and performed them in unison.
Woetzel called the students' attention to the “moment when we can all be together, and have a feeling that we’re going to do something important.”
Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, told the students that when her committee started Turnaround Arts, it went around the country looking for schools where there were both great challenges and great opportunities.
“Of all the schools we went to, there’s no school that better demonstrates the power of the arts than Lame Deer,” Goslins said. “We see it in the amazing gifts that you made for us, in the music that you just played for us, in your prayers and your chants and your songs.”
The tribe’s rich cultural traditions are connected to the community and they should be connected to the school as well, she said.
“You have some great people who are already doing this, and we’re here to help you bring more of your culture and your traditions and more of the arts from around the world into your school,” she said.
Monday was only the beginning of a two-year commitment, she added.
The assembly was a nice start to that partnership, with the students enthusiastic about their time with the musicians. Teton Magpie, vice president of the student body, spoke to the crowd and offered his thanks for the visitors' efforts.
"As a proud Native American nation we are honored and graced with your presence today," he said. "And overall, we'd like to bless you and wish you good luck on your long journey around our Mother Earth."