Ballroom Dancing 101
Local schoolkids learn finer points of formal dance

Participants in Park Elementary’s fifth-grade Ballroom Dancing class perform in front of the entire school last Friday. The program, which started last winter after one of the students saw the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” will expand to other schools next year due to popular demand./Courtesy photo.

by Missy Votel

They may not have the foggiest who Fred and Ginger are, but fifth-graders at Park Elementary School are doing their best to learn to dance like them.

A performance Wednesday marked the culmination of four months of rumbaing, swinging, fox trotting, tangoing and merengueing for the students, who took up ballroom dancing last winter. The lessons came at the behest of one of their classmates, Rosie DiSanto, who came up with the idea after seeing “Mad Hot Ballroom,” a documentary about New York City school kids learning the pastime. As luck would have it, Rosie knew exactly who to turn to for help.

“Rosie saw ‘Mad Hot Ballroom’ and said, ‘You should do that at my school,’” said Suzi DiSanto, Rosie’s mother and co-founder and co-artistic director of the 3rd Ave. Dance Co.

DiSanto approached Rosie’s teacher, Tanya Grush, who was open to the idea. So, with Grush’s blessing, the students in Rosie’s class watched the

film in preparation, with the plan being to teach a few swing lessons to the students.

And while DiSanto, who has taught at the Dance Center for seven years, was prepared for the task, she was in no way prepared for the response.

“I was just going to go in, teach swing, and get out,” she said.

But when fellow fifth-graders got a wind of what Grush’s class was doing, excitement spread faster than a conga line at a Havana night club.

“When we were practicing, the other students would gather around and watch. They said, ‘We want to do it, too,’” said DiSanto. “They just loved it.”

Before she knew it, DiSanto was teaching 69 adolescents the finer points of positioning, rhythm, box stepping and – perhaps the most challenging task – holding onto a partner.

“The first day, they wouldn’t even touch each other,” said DiSanto, who taught the students in the gymnasium two times a week for 45 minutes. Eventually, though, the giggling and squirming subsided, at least long enough for many of them to get the hang of it. “By the end, they were mixing it up. They would just set right up, no questions asked. That was the most amazing thing to watch.”

Eventually, DiSanto culled the group down to 34 of her best and most dedicated dancers – who were chosen based upon interest and grades – to move onto more advanced moves. And, curiously enough, more boys opted to advance than girls.

“We have two more boys than girls,” said DiSanto. “They serve as fill-ins, which is really hard because they have to learn all the dances.”

The group then went on to learn complicated turn sequences as well as advanced-level salsa. The students also got uniforms – bright shirts and crisp black slacks for the boys, and white tops, flippy skirts and black dance shoes for the girls. They have even taken their show on the road, performing for fellow students at Needham Elementary and the crowds at the Cinco de Mayo fiesta.

Park fifth-graders Laura Quezada and dance partner, Cody Kleindeinst, perform in front of schoolmates on Friday./Courtesy photo.

The group then went on to learn complicated turn sequences as well as advanced-level salsa. The students also got uniforms – bright shirts and crisp black slacks for the boys, and white tops, flippy skirts and black dance shoes for the girls. They have even taken their show on the road, performing for fellow students at Needham Elementary and the crowds at the Cinco de Mayo fiesta.

“They just picked it up so fast, I was blown away,” said DiSanto. “They just wanted to learn more and more.”

In fact, one student at Park has received a scholarship from the Durango Latino Education Coalition to study dance further at the Dance Center.

“A lot of these kids want to go on to learn even harder dances,” she said.

For DiSanto, who has a master in fine arts from Mills College in California, this has proven one of her most rewarding endeavors. She tells the story of a student, who, faced with the prospect of being cut because of bad grades, turned himself around in order to stay in the program.

“He got all his homework in on time and started doing well in school because he wanted to keep dancing,” she said. “And that made me feel really good.”

The classes also have been fulfilling because they have allowed regular students to partake in an activity historically reserved for the privileged and upper-crust of society.

“When I grew up, I never learned ballroom dancing because it was taught in cotillion – it was something for debutantes,” she said. “This has introduced ballroom dancing to a lot of kids who otherwise never would have done it. They were so appreciative and respectful of the whole process.”

But students aren’t the only ones gaining a new appreciation for the traditional art form. DiSanto said since the program began, she has heard feedback from numerous parents remarking on the changes in their children.

“A lot of moms said they had completely different kids at home,” she said. “They said they were more respectful, their sons wanted to dance with them and showed them courtesy – they said they had never seen them act this way.”

DiSanto said this stems from the inherent nature of ballroom dancing, the ritual of requesting and accepting one’s hand and trusting one’s partner to lead and/or follow. “It’s built in,” she said. “It’s a fun way of teaching respect and trust.”

And if things go as planned, more local school kids could be learning the steps toward respect, trust and how not to look silly at their next formal social engagement. According to DiSanto, other schools as well as 9-R Superintendent Mary Barter, who attended a recent performance, have expressed interest in continuing and expanding the program next year.

“They have set aside money for me to come back next year,” said DiSanto, who volunteered her time for the program this year. “That’s my job for the summer, to figure out how it’s going to work.”

Ultimately, DiSanto envisions a multi-school dance, where of course, the standard rock and roll would be replaced by the more refined sounds and movements of big band, salsa and swing. “I think it would be really cool to have a big dance to get all the schools together,” she said.

But even beyond that, DiSanto said she is looking forward to seeing how all the hard work pays off in the long run.

“We’re starting them young,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how it carries over to jr. high and beyond.” •

The Dance Center will be offering ballroom dancing lessons for fifth through seventh grade on Tuesday and Thursday nights this June. For more information, call 259-4122

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