On an afternoon in early February before the close of the school day, a group of Center Elementary School school’s fifth-graders were to master a special kind of life skill.
On the count of three, they had to move out of a merengue step, twist and return to the default position, arms around their partners’ waists.
The partners, arranged in a ring on the polished floors of the school gym, joined hands and pointed toward instructors Paula Daub and Will Adams.
“We’ve had two generations who don’t know how to dance with partners,” Daub said before the class.
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“This teaches them life skills, like how to work respectfully with the other gender. We’re teaching boys how to become men.”
Since its creation in 2007, Culture through Ballroom Dance has engaged in classic dance style to form connections with cultural history through adult- and child-friendly instruction. Today, the organization has relationships with students in school districts in Liberty and North Kansas City, as well as the Center School District in south Kansas City.
Daub estimates she’ll work with around 1,000 students during the school year ending this spring.
This year, Culture through Ballroom Dance’s fifth-grade students at Center Elementary School performed an East Coast swing before an audience made up of the student body, teachers and parents on Feb. 27. Aside from actually learning the moves, instructors said a big obstacle was just winning them over on the idea of dancing.
“It’s funny. At first, they were like, ‘Oh, I gotta dance?’” said Derrick Prewitt, Center Elementary School fifth-grade instructor. “Now, they basically run in when it comes time to go to these lessons.”
He’s moving around the circle, making sure students’ feet are where they need to be and that they’re getting the steps.
Prewitt points out a student the instructor said has a hard time keeping on task in class. But when he gets into the ballroom dance setting, he’s a completely different pupil.
“I could never get him to focus like this in class,” Prewitt said.
Prewitt’s attention moves over to Titus Holmes and his partner, Ja’liyha Holley. “Hey Titus, you dance like your feet hurt,” he said.
Among the group of students who pivot and shuffle, Lia Brocious and Christopher “CJ” McGee, both small in stature, stand out as two of the most well-timed dancers.
Lia said she likes to dance only in her living room, never with others and never in front of an instructor. Her partner CJ said he never danced or had any desire to do so before Daub visited his school.
He’s reserved in conversation, a contrast to his commanding presence in swing dance.
Lia missed the first lesson, so CJ has been teaching her the proper steps during recess.
“The hardest part is staying together,” Lia said. “The rhythm is the easiest.”
It helps to watch others, CJ said.
“Staying in time is the hardest, but seeing everyone helps,” CJ said.
Culture through Ballroom Dance was born through a “we could do that” moment in 2005 that followed a screening of “Mad Hot Ballroom,” a documentary that told the story a New York-based version of what Daub and the nonprofit’s two other instructors do locally.
“We all went to see the movie, and we saw that kids were not only learning ballroom dance but self-esteem, respect — and their grades were improving,” Daub said.
At that point, Daub, who was teaching dance at Maple Woods Community College, had been teaching with Adams for almost two decades. Adams, a political science professor at William Jewell College, moonlighted as a ballroom dance instructor.
Daub and Adams worked their mutual contacts and came up with an organization with a $10,000 budget to bring ballroom dance to students. Daub signed on as the treasurer. She noted that the group had a relationship with four of the Kansas City School District’s institutions until the recession.
The grants and donations started drying up in 2008, and Culture through Ballroom Dance’s involvement in Kansas City’s schools was trimmed back to after-school programs and working with special-needs students.
Daub said those were among her favorite students.
“They loved their ballroom dance lessons,” she said. “They always tried their best.”
The funding for ballroom dance instruction was eliminated from Kansas City Public Schools with austerity measures brought on by then-superintendent John Covington.
Though the financial support has been pulled, Culture through Ballroom Dance maintains a relationship with Kansas City’s schools, said Daub, noting that what kept the program attractive to other partnering school districts were the numerous success stories: students she was able to help and the shy students who came to life through dance.
Daub started studying dance seriously in 1990 and started teaching in 1994 at Maple Woods Community College.
“One of the things that really draws me to this program is that it gives children a chance to effectively learn to cooperate,” she said. “(They) learn how to have that cooperation, work as a team. I like to see the children learn that and have a fun way to dance.”
The bridge to dance
If there is truly a difference between simply tapping a foot because the music told you to do so, and that intentional, graceful combination of step-and-rhythm-mediated motion, Center Elementary School students are the bridge between the two.
And the Culture through Ballroom Dance program that is so energetically embraced by kids also has a role for grown-ups who love to dance. Consider the group’s fundraising.
The Signature Flight Support Hangar, home of the TWA museum at Wheeler Downtown Airport was the place to be for this year’s Boogie Ball, a fundraiser for Culture through Ballroom Dance. Daub counted 320 attendees at the ball, which featured a big-band soundtrack. Their admission fees meant a $5,500 donation for the nonprofit.
Attendees danced to the 16-piece Abel Ramirez’s Big Band under a string of Christmas lights imitating stars. Among them were Jim and Donna Budd of Kansas City, North.
The two, dressed to the nines, were attending their first Boogie Ball.
After about five years of dance lessons, Donna Budd said the couple rated their dance savvy at a four on a 1-to-10 scale.
Their favorite move? “Not falling down,” Donna Budd said with a laugh.
She and her husband have taken lessons with Daub before. Through that, they got to know Culture through Ballroom Dance and decided to contribute by attending the fundraiser.
The energy of the occasion matched the attendees’ dance floor manner: a calculated elegance.
“It has this basic structure, but I’ve seen some of the older people out there get creative with it. They’re beautiful,” said Heather Bechard of Grandview, looking out to the swirling, dapper dancers.
For Bechard, ballroom dancing teases a certain romance ingrained in her from an early movie diet heavy in Fred Astaire movies. As a first-year student at Franciscan University of Steubenville midway down the eastern border of Ohio, she said, knowing the rumba and waltz was imperative to making a strong showing on the collegiate scene.
Watching Daub and Adams glide across the dance floor in a tango, such a world is easy to imagine.
Learning the moves
The Center Elementary School fifth-graders show glimmers of inspiration in their final swing lesson.
One evening away from their performance, they’re learning the “barrel roll,” a sort of two-person twirl. Never releasing hands, both dancers have to turn their partners and themselves completely around 360 degrees.
Because they’re fifth-graders, still young enough not to have developed self consciousness, they give the unfamiliar motion a try.
The synchronized turn, and briefly arching backward, easily sends them into laughing fits.
“What I think is valuable about this is just to alleviate the stress of being in a classroom,” substitute teacher Bernard Idika said.
Idika was subbing for Richshaunda Taylor. Idika said the class will soon be in the thick of standardized test preparation — March and April are devoted to MAP test readiness — and anything that can be done to ease the mounting pressure on the students is welcome.
The historical content of the music they’re listening to makes this a learning experience, too. Daub said she chose “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry specifically because it was one of the first times a black artist made an impact with both African-American and white audiences.
“That’s both historical and an important moment in black history,” Daub said over the curling guitar notes that open the track.
Teaching life skills through dance
Culture through Ballroom Dance’s February student programming also included Liberty North High.
Before the instructors visited Liberty on Feb. 6, the company’s fifth year with the school, administrators emailed their staff requesting that teachers lend some of their instruction time to ballroom dance.
Teachers leading the orchestra and American literature course took up the offer. Junior Maggie Duffin has a class in dancing that day during her regular Chinese II period.
“Initially, I was like, ‘What?’” she said.
Maggie has done a little country style dancing and learned the cha-cha in the eighth grade, but would still have graded herself about a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10 in dancing expertise.
However, she said dance instructor Sheila Thomson, Culture through Ballroom Dance’s president, and Daub may have moved her forward as much as two points.
Upon receiving the invitation to participating in Culture through Ballroom Dance’s visit, Chinese instructor Shianguu Hsieh immediately had two thoughts:
The first: “Can I afford this academically?” Hsieh said retracing his mental steps.
The second: “It could be fun, right?”
“And useful,” he added, citing the many potentially crucial social interactions ahead of the young adults at Liberty North High School after they graduate.
“Many of my students are self-conscious. We are here to have them learn, as well as acquire useful life skills.”
In the gym, Daub pieces the life skill together, move by move. A few bumps and missed steps later, the students have something that’s beginning to look like the merengue, a sequence of steps marked one-two-three followed by a brief turn.
They’re doing it to “Moves Like Jagger,” which uncannily accommodates the Latin steps.
Asserting the versatility of ballroom dance, Daub brought in a playlist that includes the disco-prone Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” and The Drifters’ classic “Stand by Me.”
The gym has been home to hundreds of aspiring dancers. By the end of that early February day, Culture through Ballroom Dance will have hosted 750 of Liberty North High School’s students. When there is a shortage of boys at a session, many girls partner with other girls.
Sophomore Shae Crane and senior Bria Rice were among those trying new moves. The two said they’d picked up a few dance styles from YouTube videos, but they’d never had an instructor.
What surprised them most, they said, was how well the moves fit in with contemporary music.
But would it survive the ultimate litmus test? Could they dance to Beyoncé?
Bria considered the option for a second.
“I mean, we’re sure gonna try,” she said resolutely.
A chance to shine
“Johnny B. Goode” blares through the PA system at Center Elementary School to accompany the fifth grade’s ballroom dance contribution to the school-wide Black History Month celebration.
Before the performance, fifth-grader Desmond Matthews reads a short introduction on the “culture” of Culture through Ballroom Dance:
“Swing dancing was originated by African-Americans in the late 1920s in Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, to big bands like Count Basie…”
A curtain separates the fifth-grade students and the other grades from parents. Before the curtain rises, the students double-knot shoelaces, and many fidget, but others stay locked in the pose that, on the dance floor, means business: The hands not around the waist are locked in a point forward, and the students are ready to step and barrel-roll on the count of eight.
“There are several students that, this is their time to shine,” Principal Stacy King said, adding she’s watched students blossom in in a learning setting set to music and dance.
“It does create a confidence level that teachers can capitalize on,” King said. “Let’s see how we can carry that confidence over into the classroom.”
Illusionist Reggie Gray — known by his stage name as Reggie Reg the Magic Man — entertains the crowd.
The magic is a proxy. Like Culture through Ballroom Dance, it’s there to illustrate a greater lesson. The flame turned to string of handkerchiefs is the ballroom dance couple’s transformation into elegance, the communion of both common and extraordinary things.
“You know what I see out there?” Gray asks students before the curtain is drawn. “I see greatness. I see strength. So, I charge you all with doing something great.”
The curtain lifted. And rows of pairs of fifth-graders oblige.