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A cultural education comes through dance

By Matt Russell

The Post-Bulletin

Coconut shells held firmly in their hands, a diverse group of Bamber Valley Elementary School students waited Friday as their teacher cued a plucky and percussive Cambodian folk song.

"We’ve got to take this really seriously, because tomorrow, we’re performing." teacher Sam Ouk told his students before he hit "Play."

It wasn’t just a Friday, but it was one of the most beautiful days this spring. Nonetheless, 15 students stayed after school without complaint to practice the complex Cambodian coconut dance they would perform the next day at Rochester Community and Technical College.

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"I think it’s really interesting," fourth-grader Katie McGill said after practice.

Bamber Valley’s after-school dance class is rooted deep in the childhood of the 26-year-old Ouk, who was born in a Thai refugee camp and struggled with English as a kindergartner in Rochester.

First grade was different for Ouk. A teacher he had then, Marlene Mensink, helped him with his English while inspiring him to return to Rochester as an English-language teacher.

"She showed me that to be a great teacher, you can’t just teach in the classroom and leave work at work," Ouk said.

That philosophy led Ouk to start a cultural dance class last year to expose Bamber Valley students to other cultures while giving students new opportunities to get involved.

The class was a hit — possibly too much so. About 55 students joined the class, an overwhelming number to handle, Ouk said. He had to limit the number of students this year.

This year, Ouk also scheduled the class’ first public performances — last Saturday’s at an Asian cultural show at RCTC and another this month at the retirement party for Superintendent Jerry Williams.

"It was awesome," Ouk said after the RCTC performance. "We had large applause, and they just felt like stars."

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Ouk plans to continue his dance class next year, saying he wants to get more immigrant and refugee students involved and also wants the class to perform more in the community.

"I think it’s going to be here for as long as I’m teaching here," he said.

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