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Arts

Reading, writing and merengue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 10, 2009 - "What is your favorite ballroom dance?" The replies were mixed from a group of students standing outside the St. Katharine Drexel gym in St. Louis.

Fifth grader DeMarnesha Jones voted for Swing, while Brian Wilson said his favorite was Tango.

Tango? Swing? For fifth graders? Yes. These two were part of pairs of dancing partners who walked proudly, arm in arm, into the gym before wowing a crowd of classmates, teachers, family members and community members with their ability to dance the Merengue, Foxtrot, Rumba, Tango, Swing and Waltz.

Representing three schools -- St. Katharine Drexel, St. Francis Cabrini and Our Lady of Guadalupe -- 36 students (18 couples) competed in a friendly ballroom dance competition known as Colors of the Rainbow. Ladies sported colored sashes, while gentlemen had colored cards pinned to their backs as they performed for the excited crowd.

As seen in the documentary film, "Mad Hot Ballroom," the Colors of the Rainbow performance is the culmination of a 10-week, 20-session in-school program called Dancing Classrooms, brought to St. Louis in 2008 by Arash Sabet and Lauren Wilmore.

Angie Brookes, teacher for the class at Our Lady of Guadalupe, believes ballroom dance teaches more than just steps; it also focuses on teamwork and the elegant harmony between the partners. "I have witnessed a change in my students. They have learned a lot and they are so proud of what they have accomplished," said Brookes.

The classes had not always garnered smiles from everyone.

"When this program started at his school, my son said, 'They are making me dance and I have to put my hand on a girl's waist,'" said Betsy Murphy, as she remembered her fifth-grade son's plea to stay home from school. "Today, he says, 'Mom, wanna dance the Merengue with me?' and then he reminds me to shake my hips."

In January, St. Louis Dancing Classrooms will be in eight schools and three school districts with the vision to make the program available to every St. Louis student. For more information about the program, check out http://stldancingclassrooms.org .

And for a brief look at the dancing, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vb1Dr4_i0fc 

Rosa Mayer is a freelance writer. 

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