Sass and spirit galore — even a pair of rhinestone-speckled loafers — added to the pizazz on stage inside Huguenot High School last week when dozens of local fifth-graders strutted and stepped and twirled their way through a high-energy dance competition created just for them.
Little did they know they were showing off more than just dance moves.
Students from six Richmond-area elementary schools participated in the Colors of the Rainbow Team Match on Wednesday. The friendly competition was the culmination of a 10-week dance program called Dancing Classrooms Greater Richmond, where core values like respect, social awareness, teamwork and confidence are nurtured and flexed through the realm of dancing.
Specifically, students learn the tango, rumba, merengue, foxtrot, swing and other ballroom-style dances during twice-weekly practices.
But within those practice sessions, they’re navigating the real-life scenarios of working with others, communicating appropriately and effectively, building self-esteem and learning skills that’ll spill over into math class, history class, gym class — even at home.
Dancing Classrooms Greater Richmond is part of Dancing Classrooms, an international nonprofit organization that started 25 years ago in New York by dancer and dance instructor Pierre Dulaine.
It’s since been the subject of movies, including “Mad Hot Ballroom” and “Take the Lead,” which is where Mariya Vysotskaya, executive director of Richmond area chapter and an award-winning ballroom dancer, first learned about it.
She led a team to successfully bring the program to Richmond seven years ago, where it started in Richmond Public Schools. It has expanded to include schools in Henrico and Chesterfield counties, and could move into other divisions as needed.
This year’s school cohort was made up of Richmond’s Mary Munford, Southampton and Westover Hills elementaries and Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts and Chesterfield’s Crestwood and Robious elementaries.
“It’s a social and emotional learning program,” Vysotskaya explained last week as dancers and their supporters — parents, school principals and classroom teachers — filed into the Huguenot auditorium ahead of Team Match.
“Some kids need that extra boost of confidence,” she said, which many achieve as they move through the practice sessions. “This is something [where] they will all succeed, and maybe that translates to other classes and areas of their lives.”
Dancing Classrooms, nationally, works with fifth- and eighth-grade students. Locally, however, it’s just fifth grade, Vysotskaya said. Over 10 weeks in the fall, teaching artists — usually former dancers who’ve been trained by Dancing Classrooms — visit the schools and use the curriculum to teach 10 different dances.
Participating school divisions split the cost of the program with Dancing Classrooms, which offers grants and raises money through donations and fundraisers.
Not that all students are on board right away, said Chantell Ray, a teaching assistant who’s working in her third season with the organization, this year at Crestwood and Robious elementaries. She formerly taught Dancing Classrooms in the Seattle area. Ray joked that teaching entire classes to move in syncopated rhythms “sometimes takes miracles.”
At first, for many students, “it’s unknown, so there’s trepidation [and] a little fear,” she said. “There’s a lot of nervous laughter.”
The teaching assistants have been trained to set expectations early, so by about the third week of practice, Ray said, students understand what’s expected of them — be respectful of others, work hard, have a good attitude — and they begin to relax and just have fun as they learn. She said the program targets fifth grade to help students gain confidence before heading to middle school.
The program works, said Vickie Oakley, a former local educator and administrator and current Dancing Classrooms Greater Richmond board chairwoman.
“It’s not just about the dance,” she said. “It’s about children learning how to interact together in a team environment; it builds camaraderie.”
“When you see the program in action and you see the way it builds children’s self-esteem,” she continued, “that teamwork carries over into their academic setting.”
Team Match, however, adds a bit of glitz and glamour.
While the entire fifth grade at each school participates in Dancing Classrooms, only 12 students are selected from each school to compete in Team Match.
Teams are color-coded by their schools, and each team is judged on five dances. They’re awarded gold, silver and bronze medals plus trophies, some nearly as tall as the dancers themselves.
Before the event started, Patrick Henry fifth-grader Cameron Minor explained that swing dancing was his favorite. He didn’t mince words when asked why.
“It gets your energy out,” he said. “If you’re out of breath, you’re doing it right.”
Parent Vernee Gill called the program “excellent.” Her daughter, Southampton student Deanna Franklin, “dances every day and she has me dancing every day.”
“It teaches ... class and grace,” she said, but also noted that her daughter has made friends with participants from other schools.
At the end of the night, Crestwood walked away with the spirit trophy, given out for the most spirited audience support, while Mary Munford took home the grand-prize trophy for dancing. The night ended with an impromptu dance party on stage for dancers, their parents and anyone else who felt the need to move and groove.
The stage was packed.
“It’s a powerful program,” Vysotskaya said of Dancing Classrooms. “I’ve been in ballroom [dancing] all my life, and I had no idea that it could do things like that.”