By Joe Anuta
A 10-year-old couldn’t get any more suave than the young men at a Woodside school last Thursday. They were wearing ties, black slacks and, in some cases, bright red cumberbunds and matching bow ties. The ladies, often head and shoulders above their male partners, held their heads high as the room descended into silence.
They were about to dance, but it wasn’t time for a party. In fact, only half the room would celebrate at the end of the night.
The semi-finals for the Queens dancing competition began with a merengue.
“I like the merengue because you get to shake your buttons,” said Carla Quichpi, a fifth-grader at PS 152 who, like the rest of her team, was sharply dressed in a black skirt and red blouse.
Quichpi and her school were one of 16 in the borough that participated in the Dancing Classroom Program this semester, according to Yvonne Marceau, the artistic director for the program.
Instructors from Dancing Classrooms teach five ballroom dances to fifth-, eighth- and 12th-graders in more than 200 public schools throughout the five boroughs. The program was also the subject of a documentary called “Mad Hot Ballroom.”
But Marceau said the kids do more than just tap their toes.
“It’s more than a ballroom dance program. It’s a social development program,” she said.
Teachers use dancing and exercise to improve the youths’ self-confidence and teamwork skills, she said.
Schools from Woodside, Bayside, Forest Hills, Fresh Meadows, Westchester County and Long Island were vying to advance to the citywide final in January.
Each school’s team had a specialist for the five dances: merengue, fox trot, rumba, tango and swing.
And when the couples took to the floor and locked hands, there was no snickering, no whistles from the audience or any of the immature behavior often associated with fifth-graders. They were competitors and dead serious.
But the night felt more like an episode of “Dancing with the Stars” than an elementary school basketball game or track meet. Just like every television competition has its charismatic host, this competition had Pierre Dulaine, founding director of Dancing Classrooms.
“Swing!” screamed Dulaine into his headset microphone as the children scurried onto the floor and got into position. Dulaine spent the evening hovering around the floor in a blue pinstripe suit providing running commentary for the audience and chastising the children with mock gravity. Dulaine was almost maniacal at points, and announced with such zeal that anyone could tell he was just as excited as the children.
“Dip her!” he shouted to the couples at the end of one dance. “Now dip him!”
The swing dance started, but halfway through the song, a lone shoe flew off the foot of a competitor. To her credit, the girl didn’t stop dancing, although she probably lost points. The judges roamed the room with a stoic neutrality.
“If your kid is off-beat, then they will not get 10 out of 10,” Dulaine said into the microphone. He took several minutes to lecture parents on the subject of good sportsmanship and to the children he hammered home the age-old point that winning is not everything.
But ancient adages provided no comfort when the verdict was finally announced.
PS 152 in Woodside, PS 26 in Fresh Meadows and PS 144 in Forest Hills erupted into cheers. They won the gold and will compete with the city’s finest Jan. 6.
The grand final, where the winners from every semester of this year will compete, will take place at the World Financial Center in Manhattan in June.
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.