It’s a Wednesday night, and Chrisie Santoni is an hour away from taking the stage at East Stroudsburg University. An award-winning songwriter and touring musician, Santoni breaks from sound check to discuss her New Jersey-based early childhood program, Dancing Bears Music.
Founded in 2005, Dancing Bears Music is a music-and-movement program for young children up to age five. The program is parent/child centered and introduces kids to a variety of unpitched instruments such as triangles, tambourines, bells, shakers, and rhythm sticks.
The tots work on rhythm and motor skills, while singing and dancing to Santoni’s original songs.
“I wanted mellow music that I thought kids would like, and I really think that's what makes the program special- the music,” said Santoni.
Santoni is a graduate from Monmouth University and completed graduate studies in film at the Savannah College of Art and Design. After working in the film industry, she now pursues music full-time as one half of a duo called The Billies.
The Billies' other half, percussionist and vocalist Craig Smith, accompanies Santoni on the Dancing Bears CDs. The duo’s “adult music” style, which they call “low country groove”, translates to their music for kids. It’s chill music designed to soothe the kids and draw them into the activities associated with the songs.
To continue the program while she tours, Santoni recruited a New Jersey instructor. The teacher, Ms. Erica, earned a degree in music therapy and taught music for many years. Erica has a very accommodating instructing style, having worked with different age groups and children with special needs.
“Some participate a lot, some watch. And by the time we get to the fifth, sixth, and seventh week, they’re at the table saying ‘What’s next? What’s next?’” said Ms. Erica speaking of her young students. “I’m really fortunate. We have great kids and great parents. It’s been a pleasure,” she added.
In the class, Ms. Erica plays Santoni’s CDs as well as her own guitar. Each week, she will replay familiar songs but also introduces one or two new songs from the 21 tune set.
Santori’s full 50 song collection is available for purchase at cdbaby.com. The songs on All Seasons introduce kids to "counting, the alphabet, animals, the body, rhythm patterns, melodies, harmonies and the seasons of the year".
"The songs have good values, like being kind to one another and noticing beautiful things in the world, and things that are important to me,” added Santoni.
Two of her songs, “Clams in the Mud” and “Down on the Farm” have played on Kids Place Live on SiriusXM Radio, channel 116. She and Smith were very excited for the airplay.
Each Dancing Bears Music class lasts approximately 45 minutes and like the album title, the sessions run all seasons. The program is ready to kick off its spring session on Saturday, April 2 and registration is ongoing.
The morning classes are offered in a 10 week session through the Monmouth County Parks System at Dorbrook Park, Colts Neck and Tatum Park, Middletown; parents have ample options in choosing time and day. Primarily the classes run on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Tuition for the classes is $125.00 and a $25.00 material fee. Sibling discounts are available, and siblings six months and under may attend for free.
A separate program is offered to Brick residents only at the Brick Recreation Center on Tuesday mornings. The Brick class costs less with less sessions.
To view the schedule of spring classes click here.
Ms. Erica also makes appearances at daycare centers, summer recreation programs, and birthday parties.
Currently, Santoni is developing a Dancing Bears Music app for iPhone, iPad and androids. “Sing and Match” will be an interactive game for toddlers which will feature her music. She hopes the app will be available within the next couple of months.
Santoni also wants to reach out to other potential part-time employees who might help her expand her business. A kind, gentle manner and a passion for working with children are prerequisites; a music degree is not.
Santoni would like to develop a brief training course that would allow part-timers, possibly stay-at-home parents, to operate their own low-cost Dancing Bears franchise. She encourages people to reach out to her for more information.
“This video needs to be on loop in our house,” said Jillian Keefe. At home, her daughter Lilly loves to watch a DVD of Santoni singing and playing guitar.
“I find that when we get home, they enjoy singing the songs," said Veronica Carvalho who brings her three children to Tatum Park class in Middletown. "And just having them being exposed to all the different components of music and making music - I think it’s very beneficial for them,” she added.
To register for Dancing Bears Music, visit the Monmouth County Parks website by clicking here. For the class at Brick recreation center, call 732-262-1072.