Short stuff: Spotlight
Maan Nabong readies the CD player. "OK, ready?" the dance instructor asks her class. "Five, six, seven, eight ..."
Music swells through the third-story classroom of Chicago’s May Community Academy as about 20 paired-off fifth-graders begin a clunky shuffle back and forth. Nabong lets it go for about 10 seconds, then, "OK, whoa, stop! You’re dragging!" She conspicuously raises a shoe. "See my heels? They need to be up the whole time, OK?"
The kids reset and the music swells again. They dance. It looks better already.
Nabong’s class is part of the "Having a Ball" program, a Chicago Public Schools-backed initiative to bring ballroom dance training to more than 950 fifth-grade students in Chicago schools. Now in its second year of grant funding, the program requires students at 15 schools to participate in 20 weeks of training, capped off with a competition at the Navy Pier Grand Ballroom.
Molly Diemer, who heads the program, says ballroom dance is both physically and mentally stimulating for the students. "The act of dancing itself helps to strengthen bones, muscle and coordination, especially at that fifth-grade state where things can be a little awkward," she says. "Also it’s a great opportunity to get kids to work together and have opposite-sex interaction in a respectful manner."
The students learn the international style of ballroom, with five or six dances from different cultures, including waltz, tango and Paso Doble. By the end of the program in May, many will achieve ballroom dancing’s Bronze Syllabus level.
Cultural phenomena like the TV show "Dancing With the Stars" have put ballroom dancing back on the map, says Nabong. But it can still be tricky getting everyone on board. "Some (kids) are, of course, really hesitant to do it because they probably had this conception that ballroom is not so cool, boring and no one wants to be stuck like this for an hour," she says. But, she adds, "from my experience, towards they end of the year, they really enjoy it."
Fifth-grader George Lumpkin is a convert—and thinks his peers who skip the class are missing out. "They don’t do ballroom ‘cause they don’t like dancing and people making fun of them," he says. "It’s just fun. We learn a lot of things."
Two of the stars of Nabong’s class are Dennis Cage and Runeshia Wallace, who pair up for the entire 50 minutes and throw extra twirls and spins into their routine. They whirl and step vivaciously across the classroom floor, each rendition a bit more fluid than the last.
"It’s fun ‘cause I never did ballroom dancing (before)," Dennis says at a break point. "You get to have partners, and you get to learn the steps and do a competition."
"I’m going to be nervous," Runeshia confesses about the big event. But she’s looking forward to it and has confidence in Nabong. "When she teaches us, we catch on very fast."
If it goes well enough for them, they may have the option to continue after the May 17 competition. The grant also covers an elementary dance scholarship program for eight boys and eight girls to continue to train in ballroom and ballet through the sixth grade and beyond.
Nabong, herself a longtime dancer, loves the idea. "I think it’s amazing that CPS has been able to give these kids the opportunity to do something that a lot of kids aren’t able to do because they can’t afford it," she says.
The benefits of the program may even reach to Chicago’s 2016 Olympics bid, Diemer says. The Having a Ball program is just one of many ways of proving "that we are an engaged and active city, that our youth are involved in athletics and cultural activities.
"We’ve had tremendous parent support, tremendous support from the schools, and the students are doing really fabulously with what they’ve been able to learn in such a short period of time."