To school's male athletes, dance class a helpful step

Glen Burnie High: Many members of sports teams are signing up for the program, which improves confidence and agility.

May 04, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

As far as dancers go, Justin Colona is on the beefy side. He has to be. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Glen Burnie High School senior is also a linebacker for the football team.

But tonight, at an "Evening of Dance" in the school's auditorium, he will lose the pads and the cleats - and maybe a few pounds - as he shows off his spins and dips for a crowd full of friends and teammates.

"The first time I did it, I was nervous. It was scary," says Colona, who keeps his head shaved and ears pierced. "But it's fun. It's awesome. All the guys do it."

That's not, technically, true. But at Glen Burnie High, it can seem that way. The school, in the midst of a gritty, working-class town, has one of the largest high school dance programs in Maryland. And taking dance is all the more unlikely for most of the guys who take part.

About 50 of the dancers in tonight's show will be boys - big, strong guys who are captains of the baseball and lacrosse and football teams and who had as much rhythm as a rock before they took dance class.

They'll be joined by about 200 girls, and directing it all from offstage will be Dianne Rosso, who is in her 30th year as the school's dance director. A lively sprite of a woman, Rosso, 51, created a class called Dance for the Athlete about a decade ago. It was an instant hit.

"The biggest jocks on campus came out the first year," Rosso says. "Some of the guys come in very skeptical, like what have I gotten myself into? Then they find its kind of hard, and after a while, they think this is really cool."

Rosso sits down with the athletic director every year to coordinate schedules. The performance is this weekend because it's in the lull between the regular baseball season and the playoffs. There is a track meet today, so Rosso moved the dances those athletes are in to the end of the show.

The coaches at the school encourage their players to take the dance class. They say it helps the athletes become more agile - and more confident.

"I see a lot of shy kids take this class, and they just come out of their shell," says basketball coach Mike Rudd. Four of his players were in last year's performance, and the team showed up to cheer them on.

During a rehearsal this week, the dancers practiced a salsa number to the tune of "Cuban Pete." The boys looked tough in their sombreros, tight black tank tops and khakis. The girls looked seductive in their leis and fire-engine-red dresses.

Colona says that his family will be at the show. But when he was a freshman and told them he wanted to take dance, they didn't know what to make of it.

"They looked at me like I was crazy," Colona says. "They didn't know what to say. Then they came to the show, and they thought it was awesome, too."

While Colona and the other athletes acknowledge enjoying the spotlight on stage and the chance to craft moves, they are quick to note that dance helps them on the field, too. They mention agility and coordination and say lifting a girl over your head isn't easy, even when she weighs 110 pounds.

"It helps with some of your footwork," says Matt Easter, a senior lacrosse and football player. "Spinning in a circle with a girl in your hands - that takes some footwork."

Colona, who also pitches for the school baseball team, notes another advantage. "It helps, too," he says, "with prom."

While it may seem unlikely to find such a large dance program in Glen Burnie - a place where strip malls and hamburger joints line the tired roads, and where students derisively refer to themselves as the Glen Burnie "burnouts" - Rosso insists there's nothing surprising about it at all.

Why shouldn't boys dance? And why not in Glen Burnie?

"Dance is for everyone," Rosso says, "and I'm not going to make this an elitist program and eliminate kids."

So the program has grown. There are 16 dance classes and two sold-out performances every year - one in the winter and one in the spring. In 1992, Rosso was named Maryland's Outstanding Arts Educator. And in 1991, the National Dance Association named her Dance Teacher of the Year for the eastern district of the United States.

Rosso's students have enjoyed plenty of success, too. They have danced at the Kennedy Center, on Broadway and aboard cruise ships. Several are dance instructors at high schools in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

The size of the Glen Burnie performance makes for some headaches in the days leading up to it. Before last winter's show, one of the dancers was arrested and then suspended, and Colona had to learn that boy's dance in a day. One time, a girl's parents told her they were divorcing right before she left for the show.

On Thursday, water started leaking onto the stage from the roof. Trash cans were brought in and the students just danced around them.

Rosso is a teacher, counselor and mom to these kids. And when the curtain rises tonight at 7, she'll be their biggest cheerleader, too. "Glen Burnie can be rough," she says, "but there are a lot of good kids here. And they can dance."

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