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Riverside's Rhythm Chicks enthusiastic drum team
LARRY MAYER/Gazette Staff Sharon Shannon leads 19 seventh- and eighth-graders in a drum demonstration for students at Ponderosa Elementary School Thursday morning. The students are participating in the Drumming and Rhythm Awareness classes as part of the Alberta Bair Theater's Stories Project.

The ancient rite of drumming got a modern-day spin on Thursday as students from Riverside Middle School beat a message to their younger peers at Ponderosa Elementary School.

The message of the Rhythm Chicks was rhythmic, pulsing and engaging.

And it worked as a metaphor both for the drummers and their enthralled grade-school audience.

Gathered on the gym floor, the Ponderosa youngsters watched enraptured as 19 females from the Alberta Bair Theater Stories Project moved with their instruments, under the tutelage of drumming artist Sharon Shannon and her assistant Sandee Tyler.

Flanked by a teacher on each end, the half-circle of performers beat a half-dozen songs, rooted in African, Indian and Asian drum tunes.

The students were hand-picked by their teachers, who saw potential in them and wanted them to continue their association with school.

For teacher and drummer Tyler, "It's been wonderful working with these girls. They know the power of the drum to heal, release, unify."

Tyler began drumming after a beloved son was killed in an accident. She has shared her "recovery, release and acceptance" through drumming, she said, encouraging the girls to personalize their involvement with the drums to help in other issues — relationships, family matters and school problems.

"The goal of the project is to help youth find ways to channel their energies toward positive and creative forms of expression, to improve attitude, to keep the kids interested in school," said the ABT's Bess Fredlund.

The Stories Project, in its fifth year, has offered classes in other arts-related endeavors: video, theater, photography, music and collage. All the programs aim to help prevent possible "at-risk" situations, including a range of teen woes from behavior problems to drug abuse and even dropping out.

Ponderosa was chosen for the drum group's final concert of the year because of its link with Riverside. Many of the students matriculate to the middle school after finishing Ponderosa.

Shannon, a natural teacher, put her students and the audience at ease with her animated explanation of drumming's importance.

As the drummers explored the range of sound of drums, shakers, rattles and bells, the grade-schoolers watched attentively, clapping their own rhythms in one of the songs, with Shannon's instruction.

"The many different sounds you're hearing are the voices of people, too," she explained.

To get involved

The Stories Project is an education outreach program of the Alberta Bair Theater.

The project aim is to instill in students an awareness of ways that arts contribute to personal power and resiliency. Next year's Stories Project will offer a range of video, theater, photography, music and more. New teachers are being sought. Interested persons should call Bess Fredlund at 256-8915.

"It's the variety that makes it so interesting. Wouldn't it be boring if we were all alike? The mix honors the fact that the drums are all different, like people. Together, we have a wonderful sound, a richer, fuller life."

The project, she said, "has been amazingly successful in helping the girls become stronger, more resilient through the drumming."

The project has also created new friends. Drummer Christina Watts said she now has "a dozen or more good friends, people I had never met before."

Britny Bell said the drumming added "a new challenge, something fun to learn and do together."

Cathy Daem said it taught her discipline, "the importance of listening to each other and working as a team."

And Claire Morton said she enjoyed the elaborate nature of drumming, "the adding on of layers, then the return to the simple beats."

"It's very cool working together and seeing each other's contributions," she said.

For Jayme Newell "The drumming is like building our own community. I hate to see it end."

Fredlund said she might approach School District 2 to explore establishing some kind of middle-school or high-school drumming group to encourage continuity and keep the rhythm going.

When asked by one grade-school boy why there were no male drummers, Fredlund joked, "Because chicks rule!"

The grade-school girls clapped their approval. Some boys booed.

Then Fredlund said, "Seriously, we felt the all-girl aspect would help the focus, without the distractions."

Christene Meyers may be reached at 657-1243 or at cmeyers@billings gazette.com.

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