Of all the afterschool programs available to students at the University of Pittsburgh Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School, the Giant Puppet Dance Club might be the most unexpected.
But, as visual arts teacher Cheryl Capezzuti notes, middle schoolers are drawn to the larger-than-life club that introduces them to the magic of puppetry.
“Middle school can be a time where kids feel self-conscious,” says Capezzuti. “But when you put yourself in a giant puppet, you can dance around and nobody knows who you are. A lot of the kids say that’s really freeing.”
Giant Puppet Dance Club members are Falk students in grades 6–8 who meet weekly to create and learn choreographed dances while wearing giant puppets—whimsical, brightly colored, full-body puppets that extend a few feet above students’ heads. The club then performs dances at school and community events.
Capezzuti recently received a $3,000 grant from the Jane Henson Foundation for her creative puppetry work at the Falk School. Heather Henson, a contemporary puppet artist and daughter of “The Muppets” creator Jim Henson, awarded the grant to Capezzuti after seeing her present on puppetry in education at the 2019 Puppeteers of America Conference.
The Giant Puppet Dance Club will use the grant funding to create new puppets, produce new music tracks, and pay transportation costs for students to perform at events and celebrations in underserved communities.
Founded in 1931, Falk is an independent K-8 laboratory school located on Pitt’s campus. The progressive, experimental school enrolls about 436 students and is part of the School of Education.
In addition to teaching at Falk School, Capezzuti is a puppet maker, sculptor, and creative director for the First Night Pittsburgh Parade, which features hundreds of giant puppets that she has made through workshops hosted all over the Pittsburgh region. She started the club five years ago to share her passion for puppetry with Falk students.
Beyond the visual and performing arts skills that students develop, Capezzuti says they also learn valuable lessons in collaboration and giving to others.
“You learn a lot about yourself when you perform for others and help them find joy in the world,” she says.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began and the Falk School transitioned to online learning, Capezzuti personally delivered giant puppets to students’ homes so the club could continue to meet online. In addition to playing music for students to dance together via Zoom, Capezzuti also challenged students to parade around their neighborhoods and perform for others whenever they had the opportunity.
“It was delightful,” says Capezzuti. “It was a way of finding magic in a world that was really lacking in that.”