At the front of the stage, Dennis Schroeder demonstrated the basic steps of the jitterbug to his Wednesday afternoon ballroom dancing class.
"Move side to side. Reach out— and catch the ladies," the Arlington dance instructor said, twirling his partner, Martha Heisel. "That’s it. You guys are getting better and better."
After some prodding— and a few false starts— most of the 14 couples were beginning to grasp the routine. Some even began improvising their own versions of the swing dance, with ad-libbed twists and under-armed turns.
But one couple near the front refused to claps hands and attempt the synchronized spins.
"I don’t want to touch him. That’s gross," Margot Hanclich squealed.
Her partner, Jeffery Warren, looked around at the other couples and shrugged his shoulders, wondering what he had done wrong. Many in the room began to giggle.
As Warren was learning, it isn’t easy being a fifth-grade boy in McKinley Elementary School’s new after-school ballroom dancing course. Besides having to spend a sunny fall afternoon inside memorizing a host of complicated dance moves, one also has to sum up the courage to break a social taboo: holding hands with a girl for an extended period.
Yet that’s exactly what Warren and 16 of his fellow male classmates are doing every Wednesday afternoon for the next six weeks. Inspired by the recent hit movie Mad Hot Ballroom, McKinley officials decided to hire instructors from the Dance Factory of Arlington to teach fourth- and fifth-graders how to waltz, meringue, cha-cha and salsa this semester.
"We wanted to try something new, and the kids were excited to sign up," said McKinley Principal Patricia Anderson, as she watched the students practice. "It’s just fabulous."
The dance course is part of McKinley’s Kaleidoscope Project, which seeks to better incorporate the visual, musical and performing arts into all components of the school’s instructional program. McKinley is expanding its partnership with professional theaters, broadening after-school arts courses and establishing an artist-in-residence for this school year.
The school is known countywide for its strong arts and music departments, and the original musicals students perform each year with the aid of the Educational Theatre Company, officials said.
Expanding the curriculum to include an after-school dance program seemed like a natural fit, said Blake Tippens, assistant principal at McKinley.
"We were looking for a way to better integrate the arts into the school," he added. "But also have the students come away with the principle that learning is supposed to be fun."
School officials expected a class full of girls, but were pleasantly surprised to find more male students registered for the 8-week course, which is free. Parents in the close-knit school community began talking to each other about the class, and within a matter of weeks 17 boys were registered, compared to 15 girls.
Some of the boys were eager to participate and needed little nudging from their parents. "I thought it would be a good experience and fun to learn different types of dances," Warren said.
Others, like Billy Moses, admitted they were reluctant to attend the classes, but relented once they heard their friends would be enrolling.
Many of the students said they first became interested in ballroom dancing after watching Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary about a dancing course for fifth graders in New York City, and television programs like ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.
"My mom showed me the movie and it seemed like it would be a lot of fun," said Hanclich, who later in the class did agree to dance with Warren.
Chloe Lewelling said she loved the fast pace of the dances the students were learning, and the savored the ability to improvise her own moves. She had tried ballet before, "but it was just stretching, so I quit."
Besides being a fun extra-curricular activity and good exercise, learning ballroom dancing is an educational experience for the students. The course is helping them develop better coordination and motor skills, dance instructors said.
"Seeing someone do a dance step and then having to imitate it yourself is very challenging," Heisel said.
Just as important is the fact that students are breaking down gender barriers, forming new friendships and building self-esteem during the classes.
At first students did have some reservations about dancing with members of the opposite sex, Schroeder, the dance instructor, said. But by the end of the hour-long class they felt completely comfortable with each other.
In two weeks the students will have the perfect venue to showcase their newfound moves: the school’s annual Halloween Dance.
"They always have a ball, but this year they will actually know what they are doing," Tippens, the assistant principal said.