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Mission dancers awe Frenchtown students

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MISSION — As any grade school teacher will tell you, an auditorium filled with silent and attentive second-graders is a rare sight. 

“If they’re this quiet, you know they’re having fun,” said Frenchtown second-grade teacher Lane Long. 

And Long knows a thing or two about second-graders. A 20-year veteran of classrooms filled with 7-year-olds, Long sits in the middle of more than 100 of them in Mission’s grade school gymnasium. The long-awaited performance is a dazzling display of Native American dancing put on by the St. Ignatius Dance Troupe. 

According to agent and promoter Suzie Batiuchok, the dance troupe has a history of stunning crowds and captivating audiences. 

About four years ago, an International Friendship Force group from New Zealand contacted Batiuchok and inquired about Native culture. Batiuchok set up a dance showcase for the group. 

“It ended up being, hands-down, the best experience they had in the United States,” she said. 

Last year, IFF groups from North Carolina and Ottawa, Canada, visited Mission to see the St. Ignatius Dance Troupe. Both parties rated the performance as their favorite experience in the United States.

“I’m really proud to be the promoter,” Batiuchok said. 

So what do Native American dancers and more than 100 Frenchtown second-graders have in common? 

“Jingle Dancer,” a children’s book by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ying-Hwa Hu, and Cornelius Van Wright. 

“I thought it was a really appropriate book for second-graders,” Long said. “I read the book over the summer and developed a unit to teach reading and writing skills using the book.” 

To obtain enough books for her classroom, Long applied for and received a $250 grant from Allegiance Benefit Plan Management, Inc. in Missoula. The grant, dubbed the “One class at a time” grant, provides $250 allotments to educators and institutions for various purposes. 

“It’s like getting two birds with one stone,” Long said. “You introduce a different culture through reading.”

Missoula’s KPAX news station ran a story about Long’s class. Event organizer Ben Corral saw the news segment and contacted Batiuchok last month, asking if it would be possible to travel to Frenchtown and show the second-graders a real jingle dance. 

“For many reasons, it wasn’t possible for us to go to Frenchtown,” Batiuchok said. 

Undeterred, Batiuchok and Long worked out an arrangement for Long’s class to travel to St. Ignatius and view a live jingle dance. By this time, word of the field trip had spread around the school. 

“We were both really excited about it,” Batiuchok said. “And not only did (Long’s) class come, but all of the second grade came. Twenty chaparones, six teachers, and more than 100 kids. Everyone wanted to be a part of this, and every child was thrilled to be there.” 

As the silent children looked on with awe, the troupe began to dance to the rhythmic drumbeats performed by Corral and his son Willie. So engrossed in the performance were the children, none could be bothered for an interview. 

“To me, it’s spiritual. A spiritual binding for the people and the outsiders to get a taste of wandering. Their thoughts, how it really is. They get the beat of the drum inside them,” Corral said. “I told them they’d have the drum beats in their heads all the way home.”

After several dances, Corral invited the visiting children to participate in the next dance. 

“You can dance any way you want,” he shouted over the roar of stampeding children. “Any way the music moves you.”

Long said her students had a blast, and that they came back exhausted but ready for more. She especially liked that the school had dancers about the same age as her second-graders, and said it was a neat experience because the children got to dance alongside kids that were their age and part of the Native American culture.

“We just felt so welcome, they greeted us at the door, showed us where to get a drink ... I think for my students, when you read a story, it doesn’t come to life. But when you get to see it, hear it, participate in it, it really brings the whole book to life,” said long.

“The experience itself to see the smiles, the brightness of the eyes of the children, especially some of the ones that are handicapped, to have them feel the spirit and the sound of the drum touch the inner part of them ... It teaches them to believe that they can do it. All the way, not just halfway,” Corral said. “Everybody, no matter what color, has that spiritual animal inside them to help them dance.”

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