Robards dances into the hearts, and gym, of Aurora middle schoolers

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Seeing is believing.

That might be the only way to accurately describe the scene at South Middle School in Aurora on April 14.

Swathed in an array of gray, black and purple polos and hoodies — all with the golden Lobo logo in the upper left corner — nearly two dozen middle school students pranced, leaped and jived to the otherworldly beats coming out of accompanist Scott Roush’s electronic wave drum. The auxiliary gymnasium beamed with the sheepish smirks unique, and perhaps exclusive to, a middle school P.E. class.

“No way, man,” seventh-grader Marcellus Wilbert muttered as he tried to imitate dance instructor Keegan O’Brien’s uber-flexible stretches. O’Brien chuckled as he laid his torso flat on the ground, his legs fully splayed out and perfectly parallel to the wall behind him.

Despite a few remarks and grimaces similar to Wilbert’s during the initial warmup, the 17 boys barely made a peep during the roughly hour-long dance class. Instead of making the jokes and jabs expected of boys their age, the group’s attention was focused on the commands of the spiky haired sentry at the front of the echoey room.

“You’re probably stretching muscles that you’ve never stretched before,” Kim Robards, artistic director and owner of Kim Robards Dance, told the group in a tone that managed to blend song-like with stern. “Now really reach those arms up in the air.”

A veteran of modern dance for nearly three decades, Robards is a professional at toeing that delicate tonal line of authoritative warmth. And for the past five years, she has shared that expertise with the metro area’s next generation of dancers by hosting a roughly month-long dance program for South Middle School students as a part of their normal P.E. curriculum.

“The first year we started, the school staff was a little hesitant, but then during the third or fourth session the principal and assistant principal sat in and they were just blown away at how attentive and fully involved these guys were,” Robards said.

The once-a-week dance classes have been the work of several educators and volunteers at both South and the dance studio over the years, with the emphasis of bolstering public art education always standing at the forefront.

“I’ve tried really hard to get the school re-involved with the arts because, God forbid, we have anything other than sports to keep the kids in school,” said Rosemary Cleary-Hague, a former Aurora Public Schools humanities teacher who is now an educational outreach volunteer with the studio.

Even though the program is intended to give students an outlet for expression outside of sports, one of the central ways Robards captivates the attention of the many track runners, football players and basketball players in her classes is by tying the dance back to to the field, oval or court.

“The students thoroughly enjoy it because Ms. Robards relates everything to sports,” said Ann Connor-Dunning, a special and general education literacy teacher at South. “She makes a lot of references to the NCAA basketball tournament and ties everything back to the different basketball, football and soccer maneuvers.”

The bulk of the workout Robards’ hosts at South is borrowed from a routine called “Kym Gym,” which she developed for a piece she performed with her company at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“It really is a total fitness workout that combines modern dance, yoga and Pilates aspects,” Robards said. “It allows the kids to work on stretching, balance and memorizing sequencing.”

A former educator herself, Robards has been doing outreach to schools throughout her company’s 28-year history.

“Education really is my first love in a lot of ways — or at least right up there beside dance,” she said.

Robards said the classes at South have brought her some of the fondest memories of her illustrious professional career. She almost became choked up when describing a group of South boys she taught several years ago who made the pilgrimage to her former venue on Santa Fe Boulevard in Denver for a professional performance. The group took public transportation from Aurora and surprised Robards at a concert she was hosting at her venue that spring.

“When I saw the group of them that night, I told them, ‘you guys have no idea what this means, I think you’ve just made my career,’” she said.

Now that Robards has moved from Denver to her new venue on East Colfax Avenue in the Aurora Cultural Arts District, she said she aims to leverage the new space’s proximity to South to better cater to students who are interested in dance.

“Now that we’re just five minutes from South, we’re hoping to get kids over to the studio for classes and hopefully be able to offer some scholarships to supplement their learning,” said LaRana Skalicky, associate executive director at the studio.