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Elegance on display at St. Louis Dancing Classrooms qualifier

Students from five schools dip and sway in unison in ballroom dancing event

From left, Luke Richars and Gabriella Angelo from St. Gabriel the Archangel, Ryker Whittle and Bella Pavia from St. Gerard Majella School; Oliver Manalang and Karleigh Cotner from St. Stephen Protomartyr School; and Alex Hopf and Meliya Hall from All Saints Academy-St. Ferdinand danced the tango in a St. Louis Dancing Classrooms Spring Qualifying Event. Dancing Classrooms curriculum promotes a heightened sense of respect for self and others, responsibility and community.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
The chants rang out for their schools from the bleachers. They did the wave. And applauded — as loud and long as if it were a Stanley Cup playoff hockey game.

The St. Gabriel the Archangel School gym rocked with excitement April 26 for dancers from five schools participating in a St. Louis Dancing Classrooms Spring Qualifying Event. Included were All Saints Academy-St. Ferdinand, St. Frances Cabrini Academy, St. Gabriel the Archangel, St. Gerard Majella and St. Stephen Protomartyr.

The schools are among 30 public and parochial schools in the 10-week residency program. During two 45-50 minute sessions per week, students in the fifth grade — most of whom at first would rather spend their physical education time playing basketball — learn the merengue, foxtrot, rumba, tango, swing and waltz, along with several other “sugar” dances that encourage self-expression, including the heel-toe polka and a line dance called the stomp. A Dancing Classrooms teaching artist works with the classroom teacher throughout the residency to make cross-curricular connections between the dance floor and the classroom.

At the qualifying event, all the students danced each of the aforementioned dances. Then, each school had six couples compete in the different dances, with a sixth couple, “dance captains,” called on to dance two of the dances selected randomly. The couples dressed sharply and swayed smartly. The competitive couples were judged on several categories, including their frame, rhythm, execution and style.

Valentina Carrillo of St. Frances Cabrini Academy, said she learned the importance of elegance. Also, she said, the program helped her form improved relationships and friendships with her classmates. Valentina said she hopes her brother, now in second grade, someday “will be in dance class just like me.”

Teresa Perez, also from St. Frances Cabrini, said the class “helped me be comfortable with people who aren’t like me.”

Joey Zlotopoliski was one half of a couple from All Saints Academy dancing competitively in the foxtrot. He said he enjoyed learning the background of the dances and the skills needed for each. The socializing aspect was important too, he said, as “I’m now more confident in being with people.”

The dances begin with students asking their partners, “May I have this dance?” to which the partners reply, “With pleasure.” They dipped and swayed in unison on the gym floor. All had smiles when the music stopped.

St. Gerard Majella School students Ryne Hauck and Carson Hall danced the jitterbug in the St. Louis Dancing Classrooms Spring Qualifying Event. Angie Brooks, director of the St. Louis Dancing Classrooms, said the competitions are a way for students “to be successful at something brand new for them. They’re often shocked by their own performances, and it’s a great way to create community.”
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
Cloe Schmid of St. Gabriel was afraid at first to try the dances. But she soon found it to be fun and it helped her with her confidence.

Audrey Taylor of St. Gerard Majella, said that “when you try something new, something good will come out of it.” Her classmate, Carson Hall, said he dreaded it at first. “But it’s fun learning new dances and good exercise. And you get to know people and their personality,” Carson said.

Parents were impressed by the program as well. Elgin Manalang said his son, Oliver of St. Stephen School, now “is able to approach any girl and look at them as equals. It takes away the separateness that’s common in sports teams.”

Katie Holley, whose son Benjamin danced for St. Stephen, said “he’s going to have to teach me. I don’t know any dances. I’m so impressed that he knows the counts for each step.”

The judges also were impressed with the dancers, making a hard choice by picking two schools, St. Gerard Majella and St. Stephen, to appear at the Colors of the Rainbow Ballroom Dance Championship at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, 3627 Lindell Blvd. The final session of the residency, a public performance, gives the fifth-graders an opportunity to shine.

Angie Brooks, director of the St. Louis Dancing Classrooms, said the competitions are “a way for them to be successful at something brand new for them. They’re often shocked by their own performances, and it’s a great way to create community.”

The program involves every student, including “students who are incredibly shy, students who have a hard time connecting with their peers and students who are confident but have never done anything like ballroom dancing,” Brooks said. “This program provides a level playing field. They go on this journey together. There’s a wonderful transformation that occurs in how they bond.”

The archdiocese was the first to embrace the program, which began at St. Frances Cabrini Academy in south St. Louis. “The archdiocese has been a major support for the program and makes the Dancing Classrooms program something special for the Catholic schools,” Brooks said.

Dancing Classrooms

The Dancing Classrooms curriculum is the result of the decades-long work of champion ballroom dancer and teacher Pierre Dulaine of the American Ballroom Theater in New York City. The method started in 1994, and evolved to engage students of varying backgrounds and skills. In 10 weeks of fun and learning, students gain a heightened sense of respect for self and others, responsibility and community.

Dancing Classrooms programs are in 25 cities worldwide. The Dancing Classrooms program gained notoriety with the release of the 2005 documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” and 2006 motion picture starring Antonio Banderas, “Take the Lead.”

St. Louis Dancing Classrooms was founded in 2008 by Arash Sabet and Lauren N. Wilmore, who were looking for a novel way to empower youth in St. Louis. Students learn poise and how to interact with others with mutual respect.

Deborah DaLay, assistant principal of St. Gabriel the Archangel School in south St. Louis, called the program transformational. The fifth-graders who at first are afraid to hold hands soon shed their apprehension and learn to be respectful and self-confident, DaLay said. And, “the least-expected child to shine ends up as the one who’s shining,” she added.

For more information, visit stldancingclassrooms.org.

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