Fancy footwork for PS 152

Dancers including PS 26 students (c.) Alex Kimyagarov and Kylee Smith, put on a serious face for the tango. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Joe Anuta

Elementary schools from Forest Hills and Woodside danced their way to a gold medal in Manhattan last Thursday night and Fresh Meadows took home the bronze in a citywide ballroom dancing competition.

Fifth-graders from PS 144 and PS 152 in Woodside spun and dipped their way to the top of more than 40 schools across the five boroughs — including 17 in Queens — who competed as part of a program called Dancing Classrooms, where teachers go into public schools and teach students the merengue, fox trot, rumba, tango and swing.

Twelve students from each class are selected to represent their school and the competition is fierce.

“I’m a little nervous but also a little excited,” said Lauren Rudin, 10, of PS 144 in Forest Hills before the first number started. “It’s an honor to be here, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The young dancers from Forest Hills and Woodside will move on to the year-end final in June at the World Financial Center, where they will compete with other winners from different semesters.

To begin the evening last week, everybody took the floor for a warm-up dance. And there were some serious traffic jams.

One boy from Forest Hills frantically looked from side to side during the foxtrot as if he was backing a car down a winding road.

But soon afterward, things got serious.

Each pair of children, who were selected from a larger pool in their schools, specialized in a particular dance. The merengue teams took the floor first while three judges prowled the floor with a keen eye, while the instructors from Dancing Classrooms looked on at their proteges. “PS 144 is the most competitive school I’ve ever taught at,” said Ray Davis, the instructor at the school.

Davis was responsible for teaching the students two times a week at the school.

“They only have 10 weeks. I just teach them the lesson and try to prepare them if they decide to go to the competition,” Davis said.

Although at the outset, getting 10-year-old boys and girls to hold hands was not easy.

“They start off in ‘pancake position,’” Davis said, referring to a half dance, where the kids simply touch palms with their partners and do not embrace in a full dance frame. “They dance in that position until they are used to it.”

But soon after week five, when they are shown clips of “Mad Hot Ballroom,” the 2005 documentary about the Dancing Classrooms program, the kids start to get excited, lose their inhibitions and learn the dances more easily.

“They pick up on the dances without even thinking about it,” Davis said, adding that 10-year-olds don’t have the social pressures that often dictates the behavior of older students.

“It’s just beautiful that we can come into the schools at that early age, because once they get to junior high and high school, they become very self-conscious,” Davis said.

Although Davis instructs the kids, the teachers at schools are ultimately responsible for practicing the moves and honing the students’ styles.

“[Forest Hills] has been doing it for over 10 years, so they know what to expect,” Davis said.

During the tango, the dance most feared by many students, the students had to put on artificially serious scowls, referred to as a “tango face.”

During the swing dance, the room was full of genuine smiles, but the gym-wide happiness did not last long.

Soon afterward, three winners were crowned, two from Queens: PS 144 in Forest Hills and PS 152 in Woodside. The rest of the teams, including PS 26 in Fresh Meadows, ended their run with still-impressive silver or bronze medals.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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