Justin Cruz, a fourth-grader at Westowne Elementary School, practices his moonwalk technique after school Feb. 23. Instead of taking part in the annual Black Saga competition in which a team from the school won a state competition two years ago, students at the school on Harlem Lane are participating in an after-school program to learn about the evolution of African American music. (Staff photo by Brian Krista / February 23, 2012)

A horde of 16 Westowne Elementary School students and two teachers stomped, clapped, shimmied and danced to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" after school Feb. 23.

The group, created by fifth-grade teacher Liz Getsinger, has spent the last month studying and copying the moves from the ghoulish music video as part of a unique black history lesson.

"Music and dance for children is a good medium to get information across," said Getsinger, in her eighth year at the school. "We're teaching them the songs and the dances, and by the end, they'll know the history, too."

Two years ago, Getsinger coached the Westowne Elementary team that won the state-wide Black Saga Competition, a Jeopardy-style trivia contest about black history.


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The school would again finish in the top 10 the next year.

"I liked how the kids learned about African American history. But I didn't like how it was just so grueling," Getsinger said, noting the students studied every night for the competition. "I wanted to do something that was a little more on the fun side.

"I love and definitely respect what (Black Saga creator Charles Christian) was trying to do, and think he actually prepared me to do this," she said. "I like to personalize things and make them my own."

The move away from intense competition to something more fun was fine with the school's principal, Patricia Vogel.

"The black history part of music doesn't get addressed as much," Vogel said, noting children see a lot of black musicians but many don't have an appreciation of how the music evolved. "(This) is just another way to show and share their importance in history."

Getsinger noted she can teach more students about black history through this club, which is temporarily called Evolution of African American Music in America, than if they had entered the Black Saga Competition.

Getsinger estimated the most students she could have on the school's Black Saga teams would be 12, four fewer than participate in the weekly dance practices at the school.

By the end of the school year, Getsinger aims to have a multimedia performance during which the students will flash their dance moves as videos and picture montages are projected onto a screen.

As of Feb. 23, the students, Getsinger and fourth-grade teacher Liz Bill had fine tuned their "Thriller" moves and split into two groups to learn M.C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" and Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."

Eventually, the students, who choreograph most of the dances themselves, will learn dances to a variety of songs, from those sung by slaves in the fields to jazz to rock and hip hop.

Shannon Goodman, a fifth-grader, said she already knew the "Thriller" dance when she joined the club, but still enjoys doing it with her classmates.

"(Dancing) helps me express my feelings and it's just my favorite thing to do," said Goodman, who takes dance classes each Saturday. "I want all the people here to learn how to show their talents."

Toward the end of the 75-minute practice, Goodman led a group of about seven students and Getsinger through the moves to "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."

In another classroom, Bill taught the other students how to dance to M.C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This."

"They listen to music all the time, and they don't realize how important it is to who we are as a culture," Bill said. "I'm really impressed with these kids."

Justin Cruz, a fourth-grader, will play the role of M.C. Hammer while the remaining students act as his background dancers.

"It's pretty cool, because we're doing different dances," Cruz said when asked what he liked about the club.

Cruz noted, though, that he isn't too familiar with black history in music and hopes to learn more about it.

"It's pretty important because African American people should know what their ancestors, or (those) before their time, did," Cruz said.

Vogel noted that since the students at Westowne Elementary are so young, they may not know much about even some of the more recent music.

That was evident when, at one point during the practice, Bill scrolled through a video montage of black performers and accidentally stopped on Jimi Hendrix, another musician whose music the students will dance to later this year.

One of the students pointed to the picture and asked, "Is that M.C. Hammer, too?"