Now that I can dance

Learning: A unit on ballroom dance is part of physical education class at Patapsco Middle School, where pupils learn and compete in the foxtrot, waltz, swing and polka.

April 04, 2001|By Laura Dreibelbis | Laura Dreibelbis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dim lights, music, a basket of mints and numbers pinned on the backs of competitors marked Patapsco Middle School's fifth annual dance contest.

But instead of boogying to their latest favorites on a Friday or Saturday night, eighth-graders competed in the foxtrot, waltz, swing and polka, culminating their physical education unit on ballroom dancing.

"They want to know - what does dance have to do with PE?" said Fred Talentino, physical education teacher at the Ellicott City school who laid out contest ground rules.

The physical effort was clear as pupils became rosy cheeked and winded, performing the traditional dances last week in front of a panel of judges composed of teachers and other faculty.

Pupils paired off in the center of the gym, demonstrating their best moves to impress the judges, who made notes on clipboards while tunes from past days echoed through the room. Ten pairs were chosen March 28 and another 10 Thursday for each dance from 150 participants. Finalists performed once more, hoping to win a category.

"I think for the kids it's a connection to the past, in a way," said Principal Carol Mohsberg, who never misses the opportunity to judge. She said pupils must be brave to walk up to a classmate to ask, "Will you be my partner?"

Looks of intense concentration mingled with smiles and bored expressions. Some pairs looked at each other, a few talked, some studied their feet, while others looked around. Several couples precisely counted their steps while a few classmates showed off with acrobatic twirls, twists, and turns.

Couple No. 36, Michelle Delean, 13, and Chris Taddeo 14, were clearly having fun with the polka. Michelle has some dance experience, but Chris was a novice.

"After you get into it, you forget the steps and have fun," Michelle said.

Chris added in a surprised voice, "I didn't even know I could do the polka until today."

Both said the experience has made them more comfortable with each other.

That's what teachers like to hear because social skills, cooperation and confidence are just as important as the physical component of learning rhythms, patterns, balance and agility.

"The focus is primarily on social interaction and dance etiquette," said physical education teacher Ellen Burgess a few days before the contest, adding that, for many, the class is the first time dancing with a partner and the pupils learn how to ask and be respectful.

Teachers want pupils to be comfortable in social situations, able to come off the sidelines and interact with people of all ages. They hope the youths will use these skills at gatherings such as weddings or bar mitzvahs.

During the two-week unit, pupils practicing with different partners in each dance. No one can refuse an invitation to dance. The youths begin the class anxiously

"I don't know how to dance." "Suppose I don't like my partner." "What about sweaty hands?" These are some of the concerns Burgess hears from pupils at the beginning of the unit.

But as they progress, they become more comfortable and confidant, Burgess said. Mohsberg said she see kids who struggle in other areas have fun in this class.

Tom Kolendrianos, 13, and partner Ashley Cross, 14, were Thursday's Waltz category and overall winners. "We were dreading this unit the whole year," said Ashley, but she and Tom agreed that it wasn't as bad as they thought. "It's a good way to get shyness out," Tom said.

Classmates watched intently as the finalists performed - cheering, hooting and applauding enthusiastically after each dance.

The judges retreated to a side hall to count votes as the group waited anxiously. The excited winners received movie passes for their efforts.

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