To end `bumping and grinding,' school teaches dancing

Lessons put a swing in teens' step

In the region

March 18, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

The teenagers drank punch and munched on snacks until, summoned by the instructor, they sheepishly made their way onto the makeshift dance floor.

They formed a circle in the cafeteria at Bel Air High School. Matthew Lipka,18, adjusted his tie as he found an open spot.

"I have no idea what to expect," the senior said.

But before long, the sound of "Mambo No. 5" pulsated through the cafeteria and the room became a blur of twirling skirts and swaying hips. The teenagers, normally used to hip-hop dancing, or not dancing at all, were swept up in swing fever.

"Slow, slow, quick, quick," instructor Debbie Howley chanted into a microphone from the middle of the circle. "Rock back on one foot, and come forward on the other. Now gentlemen, lift your arm, and ladies, turn."

About 30 students showed up for the recent session that was designed to expose them to more traditional dance styles. Despite their initial trepidation, the teens took to the new styles quickly.

"That was a lot of fun," said Griffy Tanenbaum, an 18-year-old senior. "It was really easy to learn."

The idea for the session came from a staff member who was alarmed by the dance styles he saw at dances he chaperoned.

"Most adults would agree that the bumping and grinding way that teens dance is inappropriate," said Robert Neumer, one of the school's guidance counselors. "But it's not enough to just tell the kids not to dance like that. I think they need appropriate alternatives." Neumer, a former minister, had talked with Howley in the fall about how teenagers dance. Howley, who along with Tom Rzepnicki, runs an instructional program called Dancing With Friends out of the Bel Air Armory, suggested teaching dance styles that are simple and upbeat and would appeal to teenagers, Howley said.

"Ballroom dancing gives students a chance to become more confident and at ease with members of the opposite sex," said Howley, a Forest Hill resident.

The free lesson was divided into an hour of jitterbug and an hour of salsa. Girls were asked to wear skirts or dresses, and the boys wore ties, dress shirts and dress shoes.

"We wanted the students to not only learn to dance appropriately, but to dress appropriately," Neumer said.

The students said they had varied reasons for attending.

Heather Kurtzman wanted to learn some dance steps that would help her stand out at the senior prom next month.

"The dances break up the slow and fast steps," the 17-year-old said. "I am used to doing whatever everyone else does. So learning dance steps that go with the music, and not the crowd, is a lot of fun."

Though she found switching partners during the course of the dance a little tricky, Heather caught on quickly. Teaching teens to dance with multiple partners is part of the process, Howley said.

"A big part of learning ballroom dancing is helping people overcome their inhibitions," she said. "People may not start out as friends, but I teach them to enjoy the ride as they learn."

Griffy also said she wanted to improve her skills.

"I came to learn how to dance so that my dance partner and I will look like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire at the prom," she said. "I like this kind of dancing. The dances we learned tonight have actual dance steps that both you and your partner can do together."

Her dance partner, Seth Marple, is not looking to become a dance master, but he wants to at least learn the basics.

"I go to weddings a lot, and the people are doing all kinds of things on the dance floor," Seth, 17, said. "I want to learn to do dance steps that everyone else doesn't know. I actually wasn't sure if I would like it, but I do."

Teens tend to pick up ballroom dancing more easily than adults, Rzepnicki said.

"They don't have a lot of barriers," he said. "When they come for a lesson, kids walk in and say, `Let's do this!' But when adults come for a lesson, they have 50 reasons why they can't learn to dance."

Halfway through the session, the dancers switched to salsa. By then some of the boys had rotated their ties to hang down their backs and unbuttoned their collars. When their high heels became uncomfortable, some girls adjusted, with one going barefoot and another switching to slippers.

"It's a long night, and some people find the dress shoes uncomfortable after wearing them for an hour," Howley said.

The etiquette of dancing is another important aspect, she said.

"The gentlemen learn to invite a lady to dance and feel comfortable and confident when they do it," she said. "The ladies learn to accept a dance invitation and to handle herself with poise."

At its most basic, ballroom dancing is a social activity, Rzepnicki said.

"They can't form a relationship in front of a television set or playing video games," he said. "And it gives them a chance to experience a dance with people who have a love of dance."

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