Modern-Day Jitterbugs

Modern-Day Jitterbugs

Through a collaboration between the Lower School art and music departments, 3rd graders incorporate the Harlem Renaissance into their creative work.

Modern-Day Jitterbugs

During the Harlem Renaissance, the artist William H. Johnson’s bold, colorful portraits inspired a generation. Now they’re inspiring Sidwell Friends 3rd graders, too.

“This year, one of our key objectives is for students to become familiar with the Harlem Renaissance period in America,” explains Lower School art teacher Sabreena Jeru-Ahmed. “During this period, a group of talented African American writers, thinkers, and artists produced a sizable contribution to American culture. Johnson’s “Jitterbug Series” depicts couples dancing the jitterbug in scenes of New York City nightlife. The students learn about Johnson’s life and journey as an artist living in racially segregated America and who also spent many years in Europe.”

The 3rd graders’ ultimate task is to create “full-body, dancing self-portraits borrowing from the elements and style of Johnson’s work,” says Sabreena. Along with examining Johnson’s work, they use their time in music class to become familiar with swing music and the basics of the jitterbug dance. Then, while the class is dancing to Cab Calloway’s “I’m Just a Jitterbug,” Sabreena photographs each student. The pictures she takes give students models to use when painting their own jitterbug portraits.

“They are so uninhibited and joyous and eager to see what mid-movement poses are captured,” says Sabreena. “It’s also wonderful to have this be a collaboration between music and art class, as the students learn so much more, and it builds their excitement for this project. They come to class each week ready to work, even though the project is arduous as far as technique is concerned.”

The results are stunning. Students select their favorite image of themselves from Sabreena’s photos, study the way the picture captures their movements, and then use their newly gained knowledge of the human form to capture the joy of dancing. Musical notes fly across the background of each portrait. In some of the photos, students stand on one leg, thrust their hands in the air, or point their elbows out.

“In addition to highlighting an era and artists they might not have heard of before, they learn about capturing a feeling of movement in their art, stylizing the human form, placing the form in an interior space, and painting with precision,” says Sabreena.

She adds that the students are delighted with their finished results. “I’ve done this project with students in the past and decided it was a good time to bring it back. The presentation and details of the project have evolved, but student enjoyment of the process and satisfaction with the final product remain!”

View a collection of student work:


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