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Sandy Journal

New dance teacher encourages Jordan Valley, Altara students to learn through movement

Feb 23, 2022 06:21PM ● By Julie Slama

Altara Elementary and Jordan Valley Beverley Taylor Sorenson Dance Specialist Eric Shiring teaches Altara students the importance of movement during a class period. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When Beverley Taylor Sorenson Dance Specialist Eric Shiring was hired last fall to teach at both Altara Elementary and Jordan Valley School, he was excited when he walked into the classroom.  For the most part, Jordan Valley students were not.

“Some of them I couldn’t get eye contact, some weren’t moving, some may not have understood,” he said.

Rather than get discouraged, Shiring readied himself for the challenge for the students who have severe multiple disabilities.

“I try to help them figure it out—do they see the visual? Are they making eye contact, because that in itself is a big feat for some kids on some days. Some days they feel differently, so it’s a challenge every day,” he said. “I don’t get frustrated; I just want to make sure that I’m doing a good job and make sure I’m doing justice to these kids. What I’m doing may be effective for one student this day, but it’s subjective by every single student.”

Shiring’s teaching at Jordan Valley differs than at Altara Elementary, as he is tailoring it for 22 different classes of differing abilities, and allows students to explore creative movement or what he calls, “a dance mixture with art therapy.” 

“It’s an opportunity to get them to move and stretch their bodies in ways that they don’t get to. So many of them are really bound and tight, that it turns into a creative artistic way of playing. We have music and sometimes, we get movement and sometimes, I don’t. I never really know what’s going to happen every day; I’m always on my toes,” he said. “It has gone from coming to Jordan Valley and them not wanting anything to do with me to having some kids who are visually impaired and non-vocal to understanding instructions, such as making circular shapes or clap on the beat. It’s been so cool to see some kids moving and smiling and enjoying the process through dance in my class.”

Shiring has a loose structure built around a subject, following the state core curriculum, but also allowing play time.

“There’s so much to be learned through play and just to experience. I can come in with an idea to do one thing and some kids are just not up for it, so I have to be able to switch and come up with movements and ideas on the spot,” he said saying that his 16 years of teaching dance and choreography experience has helped him adjust. “I just follow their energy and try to help them to be fully engaged.”

In a recent lesson, Shiring asked students who are in chairs to move their arms and hands in making shapes. He demonstrated a triangle, saying the shape, and asked students to repeat the word and mirror the movements. Shiring said that through trying to move, students can release their tension.

“Making it a full embodied experience is super important,” he said. “There’s not a lot of research with this demographic on dance. There are a few things with cerebral palsy or kids with injury, but not so many with kids who have multiple medical disabilities or issues that I need to address differently. I’ve had to really figure out things on my own. I find ways to make this work because I am always eager for more stuff to help make learning fun for these guys. It’s really cool to see little victories like if I get a student smiling and laughing or just doing it. It just lights me up. It is the best feeling.”

Similarly, Shiring feels validation when Altara students tell him they love his class.

“I’m seeing progress with what I’ve been trying to teach. There’s just so much to learn through movement. It’s important to know how to use it and appreciate the fact that you can move in any way, in any form you can,” he said.

Shiring’s lessons often cover more than just dance curriculum.

Without talking, Altara Elementary students one afternoon were passing around balloons, keeping them afloat, using different body parts. They were creating movement, learning about space and working as a team while exercising—and they were having fun.

“They’re learning through something so simple, that they can laugh, have fun, move and challenge themselves and are working together,” said Shiring, who replicated the lesson he learned while earning his master’s degree.

Dance is new at both schools, where Shiring alternates teaching weekly. He began teaching students in August after being hired by Altara Principal Nicole Svee Magann.

“Eric has incredible, infectious energy and brings joy and enthusiasm to his class,” she said. “His students are able to capture and incorporate emotions and school academics while exploring and moving. It’s embracing full learning.”

At Altara, Shiring learns what curriculum students are studying, then incorporates those school lessons into his dance sessions.

“I did a lesson on shapes last week and was able to ask, ‘Where else is this applicable?’ They were able to answer through geometry and math and then, they even tried to create more shapes or things they see, like stop signs, with their bodies,” he said. “We’re moving and creating shapes and dances and the support they have for each other has been so cool to see.”

He also tries to incorporate social skills into his classes.

“I’m able to relate to some kids who may be troubled in the classrooms because I was that kid as well,” he said, in reference to be bullied when he was a child. “But these kids, they just thrive in dance. They’re eager to move. Movement is a kinesthetic way of learning, but it’s also visual so we’re hitting different ways for kids to learn about things and it’s a fun way to access knowledge and information.”

Shiring took up dance after being told at school dances he had rhythm and it was something he enjoyed. He would dance in his room with his Walkman on and eventually found his way to a studio and paid for his own hip-hop classes. 

“My home life was not supportive, so dance became kind of my escapism,” he said.

That support Shiring received from his high school dance teacher helped him to develop talent that landed him a dance scholarship to Southern Utah University where he earned his bachelor’s in dance performance.

“It’s the people who really cultivated me and honored the fact that I loved doing it—that’s where my journey has been so cool. I worked really hard at it and I’ve gotten to travel the world through dance,” he said.

Shiring has danced in multiple dance companies, performing from Los Angeles to New York to London. While in London, while recovering from injury, he studied at the University of Roehampton to earn his master’s degree in choreography.

“I was getting my mobility back when I was accepted into the program. It was just amazing to be dancing constantly because I was told I would never be able to do it again. It ended up being more fun and in a sense, my therapy because it was more sacred,” he said.

Now, he wants to be that teacher who impacts students.

“I hope I’m teaching an appreciation of self. I want to be the teacher for them like the one who altered my path. It’s important that I teach them to follow their journey, whatever is in their heart,” he said. “It’s cool to know that what I’m doing is important: teaching them about li