Texas Connects Us: Ballroom Dancing Transforms Young Dancers

Being in fifth grade and having to dance with a boy or girl can be embarrassing for some, but it can also be transformative.

Students are finishing a 10-week program learning how to ballroom dance through Dancing Classrooms North Texas. Students learn how to waltz, tango and perform other dances, but the majority's favorite is the swing.

"It's enjoyable for boys and girls," said Ladarius Smith, a fifth grader at Edward J. Briscoe Elementary School in Fort Worth.

But for Ladarius it's that "girls" part of dancing that he wasn't too fond of just 10 weeks ago when the dance program started.

"Because I was shy," he said.

The students' dance teachers say that once their students feel the joy of dancing, their shyness and resistance to dancing disappears.

"You can see it just like a switch flips and it's gone, totally gone," said teaching artist David Keeton. It opens students up to grow in their self-confidence and learn other lessons.

"One of the big things we teach is respect," said Keeton.

Along with being kind, gracious and excited to dance with their partners, "it's a little bit of trying to instill those qualities and life lessons without letting them know you're doing that," he said.

The program, which started with these students simply not wanting to touch each other, "to now being an escort, dance frame, showing respect, calling each other 'ladies and gentlemen,' it's been an amazing transformation," said teaching artist and coach Cody Sowder from Briscoe.

At the end of their 10 weeks and 20 dance lessons, it's time to take the students' dance practice to the competition floor.

Grace Fleenor, the program director for Dancing Classrooms North Texas, is on stage orchestrating dancers competing from 15 schools.

"In five, four, please begin," Fleenor said as students dance together in a circle.

As Ladarius waits in line on the side of the room with the next round of competitors, his fellow Briscoe Elementary teammates give solid performances. Parents, teachers and various supporters cheer from the audience.

"We are done with our first dance, how about that?" Fleenor asks the audience with receives cheers in response.

From shy resistance to confident dance partners performing on stage, "the children become proud of themselves and they learn that they can do anything that they put their minds to," said Fleenor.

She said it only takes three to four dance lessons for those life lessons to be learned.

"They believe that, 'I can be a good partner, I can be someone respectful to the other person,' and that's what we're teaching," said Fleenor. "It's what they're learning between the dances."

After each of their dances is performed, the competition is complete and their 10 weeks of work comes down to one moment: the results.

"Tonight, orange team [Briscoe Elementary], you are awarded the gold!" said Fleenor from the stage, as the Briscoe students erupted in celebration.

Backstage just moments later, "these are tears of joy, I'm really happy!" said one of the Briscoe students. Another said she was happy with the results because, "we're going to dance still, and we're going to the finals."

"We won, we got gold level," said Ladarius while showing off his ribbon.

The students were overjoyed that their gold award means they'll compete again in the spring, while holding onto lessons they'll keep for life.

"Very proud, very proud, they worked hard. They deserve it," said Sowder.

The Dancing Classrooms North Texas website says it has partnered with seven districts and 275 schools in North Texas, totaling more than 30,000 students.

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