Any 10-year-old can tell you it takes two to tango. But it also takes willpower to waltz, magnetism to merengue and swagger to swing.
Just ask the more than a hundred fifth-graders who competed in the first “Colors of the Rainbow” team match staged last Sunday at Dancers Studio in St. Paul. These boys and girls brought the moves — and the swank, decked out in ties and dress pants, bejeweled hairdos, elegant skirts and patent-leather Mary Janes. Their families and friends brought the enthusiasm, shouting and clapping, as if it were an Olympic event.
“Mar-ket-ta! Mar-ket-ta!” chanted two excited pals of a yellow-team contestant. Wriggling on folding chairs set up in the packed dance hall, they cheered so loudly they were gently asked to tone it down. Others waved signs reading “Let’s go Spartans!” like it was a homecoming football game.
The contest was structured like the one made famous in the documentary film “Mad Hot Ballroom” about youths in New York’s inner city.
Five professional judges who had volunteered their time ranked the contestants on posture, smiling, timing and knowledge of patterns. Students from four schools — Friendship Academy of the Arts in Minneapolis, Athlos Leadership Academy in Brooklyn Park and Four Seasons A+ Elementary and Benjamin E. Mays IB World School in St. Paul — were divided into 11 teams identified by colored sashes.
Giant cutout snowflakes and white-tulle valances radiating from an art-deco-style chandelier gave the room an air of aptly festive sophistication. As they slowly twirled to Frank Sinatra’s “Just the Way You Look Tonight” and flashed fancy footwork on the swing number, the students demonstrated they had gone from what emcee Andrea Mirenda, a ballroom dancer and coach, called “organized chaos” at the start of their lessons a few months earlier to self-assurance.
During the first merengue round, green-teamer Dieudonnee Reponse of Four Seasons sashayed around the floor like a boss, adding flair to his style with hip shakes as his partner, team captain Emilia Hulson, matched him step for step.
Dieudonnee’s older sister, watching from the wings, said she was proud of him. Did they have anything like this at school when she was his age?
“No,” she said, looking a little wistful.
Heart of Dance, the new nonprofit organization behind the event, was co-founded by Mirenda and Ember Reichgott Junge, an attorney and former state senator. Its primary purpose is to launch and support Dancing Classrooms, already up and running in more than 30 other communities nationwide, in schools located throughout the Twin Cities area. In addition to teaching classic dance styles, poise and confidence, the program connects dancing to other curriculums from math to social studies and reading.
“This is so much more than simply a dance class,” Mirenda said. “It’s a vehicle for teaching essential life skills, focusing on teamwork, elegance and respect. You see it in the way the students look on the dance floor, how well they behave in an unfamiliar and stressful situation and in the way they were willing to step up to fill in for missing teammates at the last minute.”
A chance to grow
Reichgott Junge, who serves as Heart of Dance’s development director, got involved after becoming interested in amateur dancing. She calls dancing’s benefits universal.
“I had no idea how it would help me to be myself, to grow in personal relationships, have fun, stay fit, and live with confidence,” she said. “I want that for others.”
By Round 2 of the contest, previously crisp white shirts were wilted and half-untucked, gold-lamé hair ornaments were slipping askew. The sheen of sweat lent a glow to the competitors’ determined faces as they concentrated on doing the correct steps as Peggy Lee crooned “Fever.”
Sivohn Myers, a co-captain of the mocha team from Benjamin E. Mays, had a troop of family members in the audience cheering him on.
His dad, Phontay Lindsey, said the experience has helped his son to “get rid of his nervousness in front of crowds.”
Grandmother Karen Myers, mom Salena Myers and great-aunt Weller Johnson, all in the front row, were just happy that Sivohn has inherited their own love of dancing. When the students led the crowd in doing the Macarena as a finale number, they leapt to their feet.
“His great-grandma has dementia, or she’d be here, too,” said Karen. “But I visited her the other day, and she danced. She still knows how to dance.”
“Fingers crossed, guys!” said a teacher working with the green team when it came time to announce the top three placers.
Cayenne Ramirez was a co-captain of the first-place winners, the red team. She beamed as she posed with a trophy nearly as tall as her own petite frame.
Asked what was the most difficult part of competing, she said, “Not the dancing. I can do all six dances. It’s trying to remember the steps while people are staring at you and cheering.”
Boys like it, too
One notable change from generations past seemed to be that the boys were just as into dancing as the girls, perhaps because shows like “Dancing With the Stars” have upped ballroom’s image as a cool activity.
Lesley McGaster of Athlos Academy said that at first, dancing with a boy was awkward, “because of the touching,” but she learned to get over it.
“At any age, meeting new people and trying new things is nerve-racking, but it’s how we grow,” Mirenda said. “The sense of accomplishment from succeeding at something you weren’t entirely sure you could do gives you the courage to try something new again.”