Drama of the dance

Middle school students learn lessons on life, relationships and the foxtrot through ballroom dancing lessons

June 01, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

The girl stormed off the dance floor, her body language the universal for "I'm outta here." Her partner was left standing alone, his shoulders shrugging in the universal for "What did I do?"

Ah, the drama, the intrigue, the stomped toes.

It's one of those ideas that seem like either pure genius or total insanity, and turn out to be a good bit of both: Take the mannered world of ballroom dancing, plant it in the hormonally fraught setting of the typical middle school.

Moviegoers first saw the results of this odd coupling several years ago, in the hit documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, which followed several New York City schools as they fielded ballroom dancing teams to compete for the top prize.

Last night, customers of Gardel's, a Baltimore nightclub, saw a local version as an unlikely group of students from a Fells Point school performed the fox trot, salsa and other dances that they've learned this year.

Inspired by the movie, Kim Suerth, a former teen beauty queen who takes ballroom dancing lessons, approached the Living Classrooms Foundation to see if she could start a mini-Mad Hot program for them.

This fall, she and her dance instructor, Genya Bartashevich, began working with kids at Crossroads, a charter school run by Living Classrooms in Fells Point.

Squeezing in one last rehearsal before last night's performance, the students went through their paces in a third-floor room at Gardel's, appropriately complete with chandeliers.

On the floor, they look less than dancerly.

As is common at this age, some of the girls tower over the boys. Some slouch, some chew gum, others stare distractedly into space.

But then the music starts.

"Slow, slow, quick, quick, sloooooowww," Bartashevich prompted, as the kids, arm in arm and elbows up, miraculously transformed into elegant fox trotters, albeit ones with dreadlocks, baggy shorts and baseball hats worn backward.

Jared Smith, 12, is a particularly enthusiastic dancer -- it's all in the shoulders for him.

While occasionally breaking out of his dancer mold to practice a basketball move, he says he's enjoyed working on "my technique and my style," which he would describe in one word: "classy."

With everyone a little on edge over the upcoming performance, tiffs break out sporadically in this or that corner of this particular ballroom.

Partners start squabbling, hands get planted on hips, girls cluster around a particularly aggrieved friend, boys look bewildered.

In other words, just another day in adolescence.

Jwaun Whittington and Chris Hill, both 14 and very confident dancers, sit back against a wall and wait for this particular storm to pass.

"It was like this last year," Chris said with a shrug. "The girls get mad about something."

They've had their own partner troubles, but have figured out how to deal with them.

"It's hard to dance with someone you don't like," Jwaun observes.

"You fight about it," Chris says.

"I just close my eyes," Jwaun says.

"I close my eyes and pretend it's Beyonce," Chris says.

None of the adults is particularly flummoxed by the little dramas breaking out here and there. "One day they love their partner," Suerth said, "The next day they hate them."

Pretty in a young Heather Locklear kind of way, Suerth is a former competitive skater, figure and roller -- she was in the Austin Powers in Goldmember disco roller skating scene. She previously produced and hosted a TV show, Just B TV, that showcased the city and aired on WBFF-Fox 45, and now she works in interactive media sales.

She was looking for a new and challenging volunteer project when she happened upon Mad Hot Ballroom.

The ballroom dance classes were an instant hit at the school, which combines rigorous classwork with hands-on experiences -- the school, for example, recently worked with astrophysicists to create a scale model of the solar system.

The school is one of Baltimore's shining success stories, taking kids from impoverished neighborhoods in East Baltimore, most of whom enter with reading and math skills below their grade level, and turning their academic performances around.

Mark Conrad, the school's director, is as enthusiastic about the classes, offered as part of a range of after-school activities, as the kids are.

"The energy and the excitement of the kids is a great thing to see," he said.

"It's a really safe and structured way to interact with members of the opposite sex, learn the social cues. It's physical, it's fun. But it takes a lot of focus as well. Plus you get to dance with a pretty girl."

Even if she's taller than you, even if she gets mad at you sometimes, even if she thinks she knows the steps better than you.

"You gotta be with them," Cierra Elmore, 13, mused of this particular learning experience, "and be a partner, and be a pair."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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