ZUNI, NM (Mar. 1, 2021) — Twice each year, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project collaborates with the Zuni Public School District to offer a Zuni social dance class to Zuni Middle School students. Fifteen middle school students are taking ZMS Dance this semester, and although the class is virtual for the second consecutive session due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, students aren’t missing a beat.

Through Zoom, dance instructors are teaching students Zuni social dances, as well as the meaning behind the traditional movements and regalia. In addition, the young people have opportunities to learn about nutrition, choosing healthy foods, and even how to make specific recipes at home.

When the class concludes in mid-March, the students will perform for their families and the entire school. This virtual performance showcase will take place via Zoom, from the safety of performers’ and audience members’ homes.

“Thankfully, the Zuni Public School District distributed tablets and WiFi hotspots to all students starting last August, so we were able to move our classes to a virtual format relatively easily,” said Joe Claunch, ZYEP’s executive director. “We’re grateful to the district — and to our partners at the New Mexico Department of Health’s Obesity, Nutrition and Physical Activity Program — for making this important work possible.”

Program assessments reveal that ZMS Dance has a meaningful impact on participating young people. After the last session, the middle-schoolers reported a 33% increase in happiness, a 17% increase in feeling healthy, and a 50% increase in their enjoyment of participating in Zuni social dance. In addition, approximately 33% more students said they know how to make healthy snacks, nearly 17% fewer students reported feeling nervous or tense about making healthy snacks, and 25% more students said they enjoy learning about nutrition.

“This program provides Zuni youth with an amazing opportunity to connect to and express their culture,” Claunch observed. “This is so important because Zuni youth haven’t had many opportunities to engage in these kinds of activities since the pandemic began. Plus, the classes bring families closer together, even through the virtual format. Through Zoom, we can see the families admiring their children. Sometimes they even participate alongside them.”

According to Zuni Middle School Principal Boyd Lewis, ZYEP is an important community partner for the school district. Not only does the youth project bring different perspectives into the classroom, it provides valuable opportunities for culturally relevant programming.

“Even in the virtual environment, our kids are so excited to be part of this, and it’s exciting for me to see that happen,” Lewis said. “ZYEP plays such an important role in our kids’ lives outside school, so it’s remarkable to see the great work that happens here when we pull and utilize all these resources for the benefit of our kids.”

Middle school Zuni language teacher Diane Cooche agreed, noting that ZYEP provides the school district with vital support.

“As they say, it takes a community to raise a child,” she said. “Our district’s goal is to preserve Zuni culture and language so they don’t lose relevancy and meaning, and the social dances program supports that. This is who we are; this is part of our culture. ZYEP is our extended family, the aunts and uncles of our school district, and we embrace them. Our kids know they can reach out to all of us, because we are all dedicated to their growth and well-being.”

Tiana Cachini, 22, is one of two dance instructors working with the middle school students. She first got involved with ZYEP through its annual Delap’na:we Zuni Winter Storytelling Project in 2020. After participating in a trip to the Grand Canyon and serving as a ZYEP Summer Camp counselor, Cachini got involved in ZMS Dance and its companion program for more than 500 children at Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School.

“For the first half of the program, we focus on the foundational items like clothing and what’s needed for the final performance,” she said. “During the second half, we focus on the dancing. We play the song and let it resonate, we break it down, and then we connect the lyrics with movement. We show the kids what the dance looks like, and we teach them the story they’re telling through their movements.

“As much as I love dancing, I really love informing the next generation,” adds Cachini, who is currently pursuing a degree in education.

Jessica Quinlan, ZYEP’s nutrition coordinator, is in charge of the ZMS Dance nutrition curriculum. This registered dietitian holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Arizona, and she is dedicated to teaching the middle-schoolers about plant-based nutrition, making healthy food choices, and preparing fun recipes.

These recipes include fruit salsa and parfaits, black bean tacos on corn tortillas, veggie kebabs, burrito bowls with brown rice, citrus salad with homemade dressing, chickpea salad, and “protein pops.” They even have delved into water-infusion recipes because, as Quinlan noted, “There is no downside to water.”

During the Zoom classes, the students have opportunities to read, prepare, and present new recipes. And in the process, Quinlan said, they feel empowered.

“As a kid, it can feel like you can’t do or make things on your own,” she explained. “I want to give the kids that sense of control, so they feel more interest and joy in choosing, growing, harvesting, and preparing food. The more engaged they are, the more pride they feel. Seeing them have these experiences makes me happy, and honestly, when the kids hold their plates up to the camera, they blow me away with what they’ve created.

“This is a fairly new program, but it’s so important,” she continued. “They’re learning why certain foods are healthy, what healthy eating looks like, how to plan meals, and the positives and negatives of each food group. They’re discovering new foods, finding things they like, and challenging themselves at home.”

To learn more about the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project and its programs, and for information about making donations, partnering with ZYEP, and volunteering, call (505) 782-8000 or visit zyep.org. And, to stay up to date on the latest news and events, follow the nonprofit youth organization on Facebook (/zuniyouthenrichmentproject), Instagram (@zuniyouthenrichmentproject), and YouTube (/ZuniYouth).

Founded in 2009, the nonprofit Zuni Youth Enrichment Project is dedicated to promoting resilience among Zuni youth so they will grow into strong, healthy adults who are connected with Zuni traditions. ZYEP fulfills its mission by providing positive role models, enriching programs, and nurturing spaces that contribute to the healthy development of Zuni youth. ZYEP strives to provide every child with the encouragement and opportunities they need to reach their full potential.