Melody in the classroom

Dancing Classrooms Philly transformed students into elegant ballroom dancers.

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

At 8:30 a.m. on a recent Friday, the eighth-grade students at Robert K. Shafer Middle School scuttled through the hallways. They weren’t late for class, but were instead primping and practicing last-minute steps for their ballroom dance performance.

For three months, Dancing Classrooms Philly conducted 19 dance lessons with the students, the 20th lesson being the final performance. Instructors Donna Boyle and Andrew Polunin taught the class seven ballroom dances — merengue, foxtrot, rumba, tango, salsa, waltz and swing.

Dancing the day away: Robert K. Shafer eighth-grade students show off the ballroom dance skills they’ve been learning for the past 10 weeks. SAMANTHA BAMBINO TIMES PHOTO

The school’s auditorium bleachers were packed with peers and family members while teachers lined the walls as gym instructor Joe Handley introduced the eighth-graders.

“You can imagine the attitude,” he said. “But what’s amazing is these kids changed within a week. We’re all so proud.”

Through the auditorium doors walked a class of elegant young ladies and gentlemen who looked beyond their years of 13 and 14. Most of the girls wore glittery high heels and dresses, and held onto the arms of their male partners, who donned suits and ties for the event. They walked past the cheers of their teachers and gathered in two large circles in the center.

For each dance style, one student stood at the microphone and gave a brief historical background. Next, three boys from each circle took the arm of their female partners, and demonstrated the style in the center. Instructor Boyle helped them keep rhythm with catchy phrases like “T-A-N-G-O, 1–2-N-G-O.”

After the demonstrations, all the students stood, the music played, and they graciously showed off everything they learned over the past three months. For students who never had any formal ballroom dance lessons until Dancing Classrooms Philly visited, they were in sync with each other and took the event very seriously. They cheered each other on, and encouraged their partners if a step was forgotten.

The right moves: For three months, Dancing Classrooms Philly conducted 19 dance lessons with eighth-grade students at Robert K. Shafer Middle School, the 20th lesson being the final performance. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

According to instructor Polunin, each class varies and the success depends on the group. While some have fun from the start, others need to warm up to the idea of ballroom dancing. Social boundaries are also broken since they continuously switch partners throughout each routine, and end up dancing with each of their peers at some point. Though it sometimes starts off rocky, the experience is positive in the end.

“They become elegant and every student gets something out of it,” Polunin said. “You can see an evident change and progression. We’ve had teachers say how they improve in their classes and receive higher test scores.”

After 45 minutes and the final, most energetic dance style of swing, the performance was over, yet students still continued to dance throughout the auditorium as Handley dismissed them back to class. Dancing Classrooms Philly’s mission is to build social awareness, confidence, and self-esteem in students, and it’s safe to say the students at Robert K. Shafer were changed for the better. ••