OREANA — Even first thing in the morning, Jennifer Toney's energy and enthusiasm are infectious.
“Today we are being superheroes,” she told kids at Argenta-Oreana Elementary School on Thursday, and led them through a routine that included a “superhero punch” dance move, holding up their hands like Superman flying, one move she described as “be a tornado” and more. “Welcome to kindergarten! Welcome to Argenta-Oreana Elementary School,” she said at the end.
Classes began for the district on Wednesday, and while some of the littlest students are still figuring out how to “do” kindergarten, starting off the year with Toney's sessions seemed a good idea to Principal Amanda Ryder.
“She came last year for the first-graders at the end of the year and the kids absolutely loved it,” Ryder said. “Her energy and her passion for it was very empowering for them, so we thought the beginning of the school year would be a great time for her to see all of our students. At the beginning, we're always talking about the expectations for the year and setting the tone, and we thought this would be a different avenue for doing that, empowering our students and at the same time, making them feel they can carry out our expectations.”
The theme for the year, Ryder said, is “Be a hero,” and the school's official hashtag for that is #differencemaker. That theme is why Toney chose a song with the chorus “I'm a superhero” to accompany her dance routine. As kids filed out of the gym after the session, she high-fived each one and told them to “have a great year.”
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Toney is a professional choreographer who travels the country working with show choirs. Her interest in singing and dancing was sparked when she was the same age as those kindergartners and her mother enrolled her in the Decatur Park District's B.O.S.S. (Best of Summer Stock) program. She went on to be in Young Park Singers, Park Singers, productions at MacArthur High School when she was a student there, and then studied dance at Millikin University.
At the time, Toney had no idea dance would become her career, she said. But she did know from the beginning that it would be an important part of her life.
“I am super passionate about performing arts. I love it,” Toney said. “If there's anything that I can do to get them up and going and having fun, I just love that. I love the kids' energy. OK, we have 20 minutes together and we have to get everything we can out of these 20 minutes. I have to be at 100 so they can join me as quickly as possible.”
She said that one day she realized that she spends all her time professionally working with students, but hadn't spent any time working with her own cherished goddaughters, both of whom attend Argenta-Oreana. She visited the school last year, too, but only to lead one class through a routine. This year, she spent the whole day so she could teach all the grades.
“I was happy,” said 5-year-old Griffin Hale. “I always wanted to dance.”