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16

NO CHILD
NOT DANCING
17 MONTA N A QUA R T E R LY
An 80-year-old tradition keeps the music playing
and the feet moving in Bynumand just might
better prepare kids for their social lives
BY ALAN KESSELHEIM
PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE
Students in Bynum start each day with dance,
a nod to longtime teacher Ira Perkins, who
said that no matter what was going on in the
childrens lives, a half-hour of dancing would
shake off all of the bad.
18
F
irst thing in the morning. All 20 students at the
Bynum school, just north of Choteau, gather in the old
Methodist Church, now serving as the gymnasium,
next to the two-story school building. Supervising
teacher, Susan Luinstra, cues up an ancient 78 vinyl record on
the equally ancient phonograph, and scratchy music from the
1930s fills the restless spaceSally Goodin, Waltz With
Me Darling, You Are My Sunshine.
Shoes off, the kids pair up. Seventh-grade boys with third-
grade girls, farm kids and kids from town. If there arent enough
boys to go around, girls join up. There is no awkward energy.
They hold hands casually. Then they break into the polka, the
schottische, a waltz. The room warms up. The students, from
first grade to eighth, glide and slide and hop and twirl around
the small space. There is laughter. A sixth-grader asks Luinstra
to dance and spins her in a giddy waltz.
Outside, the high plains swell toward the sunrise, the lonely
cottonwood ribbon of Muddy Creek winds downhill, and the
Rocky Mountain Front looms in the western sky like a tidal wave
of rock about to crest. For the first hour of the school day, most
every school day, music is the lesson plan, as it has been since
the 1930s.
You never know what kind of morning kids are having,
Luinstra says. But whatever youre dealing with, after youve
danced for a while, its all gone.
Next to the front door of the school building a black plaque
reads, In Memory of Mr. (Ira) Perkins, 1933 to 1986. In the
corners of the plaque, the symbols of traditional school themes,
Bynum-stylea trumpet, a book, a couple dancing, and a
paddle. It is his legacy, and his inspiration, that has carried on
for generations at this tiny, off-the-radar rural school. It offers a
model that schools everywhere might take note of.
Perkins came to Bynum from west of Lewistown in the midst
of the Great Depression. At that time, Bynum was a bustling
town. The railroad ended there. There were three churches,
grocery and hardware stores, hotels and homes. Settlers came
and went. People used Bynum as a jumping off point and service
center. Community dances were common and well-attended.
Early in his time at the school, Perkins noticed a social
phenomenon. When he went to the community hall dances, he
A sign at the entrance to the Bynum School honors Ira Perkins, a teacher at the school for more than 50 years who insisted every child learn a musical
instrument and learn to dance. That tradition carries on today.
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watched as young people who knew how to
dance engaged with older people, comfort-
able in the social atmosphere, having fun.
He also saw the kids who didnt know how
to dance. They were the ones out back
smoking cigarettes, estranged from the
community energy.
He thought about that for a time, then
he took action. Perkins established a
school mandate, much like the current
spate of No Child Left Behind edicts.
In Perkins case, it was a single-school
initiative, and, at first glance, it had noth-
ing to do with the 3 Rs or keeping pace
with global educational standards. Every
student at the Bynum School would dance,
Perkins vowed. Every student would also
play an instrument and sing.
Turns out that Perkins brainstorm
had that magical quality of a simple idea
with profound, long-lasting effects. And
it stuck, in large measure, because of the
ferocity of Perkins commitment.
Perkins personally waxed the wood
dance floor to a slippery, sometimes
hazardous, shine. He rounded up instru-
ments, solicited donations, convinced the
school board, directed the band, entered
students in local singing contests. Kids
at bigger schools scoffed at the overalls
of the Bynum country bumpkins, until
they heard them perform. The fancy
outfits sported by other schools paled in
the face of Bynums four-part harmony.
Perkins, equal doses inspirational leader
and dictator, demanded perfection and
enforced discipline.
Luinstra first started teaching at
Bynum in 1974 and overlapped with
Perkins for five of her years there.
Mr. Perkins came from a poor back-
ground, Luinstra says. He was very
sensitive about treating everyone equally.
At the same time, he wasnt the easi-
est personality to get along with, she
continues. He could be pretty cantanker-
ous, but we always managed.
I didnt know how to dance when I
came, she says. Ira treated me just like
one of the kids. You take Susan and teach
20
her to dance, he told one of the students. Talk about humbling!
For more than 50 years, Perkins musical tradition grew
and flourished. The town of Bynum collapsed once the railroad
pushed on. People moved houses away, businesses closed. Today
there are a handful of residents, a post office, a bar, a dinosaur
museum. The school remains the largest structure and most
vibrant feature of the community.
We had as few as four students in 2004, Luinstra says. I
was scared that year. In the 90s we had as many as 53. One
year we had 12 girls and two boys.
We are family here, Luinstra emphasizes. When I go to
other schools it makes me sad to see how uncomfortable some
kids are in their own skins, and how awkward it is between
sexes. If there were assessments for respect and cooperation and
empathy, our kids would be off the charts.
I still get people coming by who graduated 20 years ago and
say that the most important things they learned were at Bynum
School. Many of our students come from ranches miles away, or
because their needs arent met at the bigger schools, or because
parents want them exposed to this musical tradition. Quite a few
of those former students are still playing instruments, dancing,
joining local bands.
Yazmin Bogden, a fourth grader from a farm near Choteau,
is a case in point. She transferred to Bynum from a neighbor-
ing school district after having difficulty. She wears a purple
coat and matching glasses, has an air of confidence and poise
about her.
My favorite dances are the 1-2 and then the waltz, she says.
Music and dance are the best things we do, Luinstra adds.
I dont have the data, but I know it in my bones. The arts bring
the whole child together. Dance and music exercise different
parts of the brain, make connections work better. Students are
comfortable with each other here as a direct result.
Luinstra and primary grades teacher Abby Armstrong
combine to prepare Bynum students for high school and beyond.
Their classrooms are a mix of old and new. The Palmer method
alphabet is displayed on the wall, but there are also computer
terminals and iPads. Old encyclopedia sets and wall maps
combine with YouTube videos in lesson plans. Guitars, fiddles,
brass instruments are always close to hand. Fiddles were
donated by a music store in Great Falls. Trumpets were handed
down from former students.
We go hard until lunch, Luinstra says, then we have a
chat break. We talk about local news, or something I heard on
NPR. If somethings going well, we can let it go on. If things
arent going well, we can always push the desks back and do a
little dancing or sing something to get back on track.
It isnt that we dont have problems, Luinstra emphasizes.
We struggle with budgets, with personality conflicts, the same as
any school. There are years when the music program fades, and
others when it is really strong. Quite a few of our students come
because they have had social challenges or learning difficulties in
The arts bring the whole child together. Dance and music exercise
different parts of the brain, make connections work better. Students
are comfortable with each other here as a direct result.
The 20 students at Bynum School get a regular dose of dancing in the
school gym. If no live music is available, they dance to vinyl records dating
as far back as the 1930s.
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Susan Luinstra began
teaching at Bynum
School in 1974 and
was heavily influenced
by Ira Perkins. Until I
retire, hell always be
on my shoulder,
she says.
different schools. Here they get individual attention, and they get
the social acceptance that naturally comes when you interact the
way we do. After you polka with someone in the morning, its a lot
harder to be mean to them on the playground.
Bailey Deshner, now in seventh grade, has attended Bynum
School since second grade. She is an accomplished fiddle player,
likes the schottische. Her family lives on the outskirts of Bynum.
Her family enrolled her in Bynum specifically because of
the music and other enrichment programs, Luinstra points out.
Music is at the core of our school. We were so lucky to have
had Ira Perkins, Luinstra continues. But our main goal is to
prepare our kids for their futures. To my knowledge, weve only
had one student from Bynum drop out of high school.
ONE JANUARY DAY IN 2014, Rab Cummings, Adam Nordell and
Johanna Davis come to Bynum to conduct a dance workshop. A
busload of students from Choteau arrives after lunch.
This Methodist Church was donated to the school,
Cummings tells me. It came with a stipulation that there would
be no public dancing. Fortunately, school officials have negoti-
ated an exemption from that edict.
At first the room is cold. The kids shuffle awkwardly, dont
mingle much. Cummings introduces the music and dances.
These dances have been going on for hundreds of years, he tells
the students. They still exist for the same reasons they always
didto have fun, to learn and teach each other, to make friends.
Nordell (guitar, feet, vocals) and Davis (fiddle, feet, vocals),
the duo who make up Sassafrass Stomp, dial up a tune, their
instruments accompanied by the slap of shoe leather. Cummings
starts to call an ancient dance full of swings and promenades
and dosey-does. At first the kids are shy, embarrassed when
they make mistakes. The students from Choteau take cues from
the Bynum kids.
We travel all around Montana putting on workshops,
Cummings tells me, during a break. Usually, when we show up
at a school like this, its like weve landed from Mars. In Bynum,
its just another day with some new dances thrown in.
Slowly the awkward energy melts. The room warms. Teachers
join in. Personalities come out. For this afternoon, everything
else in life recedes.
When its over, the last couple sashays down the lines of
dancers. A boy from Choteau does an exuberant belly slide
finish on the slippery floor.
Cummings and the musicians pack up their gear. The
Choteau kids climb back on the bus and head south. But the
Bynum dancers wont leave. In fact, it is as if they have been
waiting for this moment. They pull out the old trusty phono-
graph, the box of vinyl, start dropping the needle on records that
have played in Bynum for more than two generations.
Whatever strained energy existed while the other school
visited soon evaporates. Luinstra watches her students do the old
polkas and waltzes.
The first, most important thing is to love the music, she
says. Were winging it a lot of the time, figuring it out as we go.
Its all so old and corny, but there is always this joy. And you
realize none of the rest matters.
22
Seventh-grader
Alden Johnson, right,
shows sixth-grader
Tommy Lesofski a G
chord during guitar
class. Teacher Susan
Luinstra says that
Tommy and his family
are new arrivals to
the community, while
Alden is from a long-
standing farming
family, which might
make it difficult for the
boys to be friends in a
bigger school. When
there are only four
boys in your age group,
you learn to appreciate
each other, she says.