Hampton Roads children dance for health and CHKD hospital

Andrew Norris and 20 or so pre-kindergarteners stand on the thin red tape in the middle of the large activity room at Primrose Schools at Cahoon Commons in Chesapeake. Within seconds, physical education teacher Revae Goodwyn starts the music and the line starts to wiggle and weave, rock forward and back, as the children demonstrate their newly learned moves to "the chicken dance." They follow it with a rousing rendition of "the bunny hop," the "Cupid shuffle" and lots of freestyle movement.

The school's children, starting with those age 12 months, participated in a Valentine's Day dance to support the nationwide Family Dance-Off competition. For a second year, the Primrose Schools, a chain of preschools, is partnering with hospitals in the Children's Miracle Network to raise awareness about childhood obesity along with funds for local member hospitals.

The contest, which runs through March 19, is open to all families: Upload a 30-second video of your family dancing at http://www.familydanceoff.com and the more votes you can muster, the more likely Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk will benefit as the top three vote-getters generate awards from Primrose of $30,000, $20,000 and $10,000 respectively. "The more local people who participate, the bigger opportunity our local hospital will win," says Tonya Gill, co-owner of the local school that opened in April 2009.

The Norris family

The Norris' family's video, "Jump Around," already has more than 225 votes in pursuit of the prize. As a newborn, Andrew, now 5, spent 20 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at King's Daughters. Born full-term at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center, he weighed in at a seemingly healthy 8 pounds 15 ounces. However, within 30 minutes he was blue and in distress, having problems breathing, says his mother, Noel Norris. He was immediately transferred to CHKD where "he almost hung over the edge of the little incubator," she says of her second child, referring to his robust size.

Andrew was diagnosed with persistent pulmonary hypertension, a rare condition that Norris describes as when a baby's switchover to independent breathing outside the womb doesn't happen. He had a shaky first couple of weeks, requiring blood transfusions and chest tubes. He was on the cusp of having to use a lung bypass machine, when on the 16th day he turned the corner. "His stats just started getting better and better," says Norris, who credits the staff at CHKD with not only looking after Andrew but the whole family. "They really try to take care of everyone," she says. "We're so blessed to have this hospital in our community. There were children from North Carolina who didn't have any visitors. It made me realize that it was OK for me not to be there around the clock."

Her family's major concern was that Andrew would suffer hearing loss from the high levels of oxygen administered. Though he has some mild loss, it hasn't affected his learning or development at all. "We're lucky. He's full of energy and life," says Norris.

Primrose Schools

As one of the 150 students — ages 6 weeks to 5 years old — at Primrose Schools at Cahoon Commons, Andrew has structured physical education twice a week for 30 minutes and lots of outdoor play time, at least twice a day. The school incorporates seven domain areas in its curriculum with "Physical Development and Health" listed first. The students learn early about healthy eating and incorporating daily exercise in their routines under a "Thumbs Up!" label that incorporates dance, exercise and music.

"We emphasize the importance of physical activity against childhood obesity," says owner Gill, who has two grandchildren enrolled in the school. "We have fun with dancing; it's good for you, it's healthy and it's fun. … We're allowing the kids to do what they already do. Everything has a purpose. The dance fits in with what we already do with fitness and health." It also fits in with the school's emphasis on community service. Throughout the year, students are involved in helping others in the wider community, whether collecting books for the children's hospital's Reach out and Read program, a food drive for the Foodbank and collecting pet food for the SPCA.

The dance

The scene at the Valentine's dance is one of controlled chaos with lots of noise and movement and minimal interference by the adults. More of the toddlers chew on maracas than shake them, but one shows great rhythm with two colorful boomwhackers, plastic tubes that make different notes, as he cracks them against each other. In the 2- to 3-year-old group, the noise ratchets up as the children jig and skip, banging sticks and triangles. Some clap in time to the chicken dance; others manage to touch their knees and toes in time to a song's instructions; others clash cymbals, don wigs and twirl around with abandon. All have found some instrument to add to the cacophony, whether sliding wood blocks against each other for a swooshing sound or smashing them together, beating on a handheld drum or shaking an egg rattle.

"They like the dancing and they really like to use the manipulatives," says instructor Goodwyn, who admits that her efforts to teach the cha cha slide were less than successful.

Asked how he liked the dance, Andrew looked down shyly and nodded his very definite approval.

The Daily Press is following the issue of childhood obesity, its implications and what is being done to help.

To participate

The Family Dance-Off competition, in which families are invited to upload a 30-second video of their family dancing or to vote on others', runs through March 19. Fourteen finalists, selected by their vote tallies will have an extra week to garner votes, through March 26. The winners will win prizes including thousands of dollars for Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk; http://www.familydanceoff.com. Nationally, Primrose Schools is committed to donating $65,000 to local hospital members of the Children's Miracle Network.

Primrose Schools at Cahoon Commons, 660 Grassfield Parkway, Chesapeake; 842-6589; http://www.primrosecahooncommons.com;

Books and dance

Here are some books that Primrose teachers recommend to incorporate music and dance into daily reading routines:

"Baby Dance," (ages 0-2) by Ann Taylor; "Barnyard Dance" (ages 0-3) by Sandra Boyton; "Doing the Animal Boogie," (ages 0-4) by Jan Ormerod; "Giraffes Can't Dance," (ages 2-6) by Giles Andreae; "Angelina on Stage," (ages 3 and up) by Helen Craig; and "I want to be a Ballerina," (ages 4-6) by Annabel Blackledge.

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