It's not often that the introductory notes of a rhythmic
Argentine tango flavored with accordion, violin and percussion
elicits a roar of excitement from a roomful of fifth-graders.
The finals of St. Louis Dancing Classrooms is no ordinary affair.
After 10 weeks of training twice a week, select St. Louis public
and private schools from Normandy to Imperial competed for bragging
rights as ballroom dance kings and queens on Tuesday.
Held on the main stage of Scottish Rite Cathedral, the scene
defied typical assumptions. Fifth-grade boys in fitted pants and
tucked-in shirts escorted fifth-grade girls into the room, arms
hooked at the elbows, heads held high, shoulders back and
concentration in their eyes.
Squeals of foot-stomping approval erupted when "Hit the Road
Jack" accompanied the swing dance, and they hooted, hollered and
swayed in their seats as Frank Sinatra's "The Way You Look Tonight"
kicked off the fox trot.
Joe Kilmade, the principal of St. Cecilia School and Academy, one
of the first schools to adopt the program four years ago, said the
structured dance helps "stem some of the social awkwardness of the
age. I think it's great."
This year, 22 classes at 18 schools competed in meringue, fox
trot, rumba, tango and swing. Most of the kids also learned to
waltz. Six teams competed in the finals.
Started in 2008, the St. Louis program follows Pierre Dulaine's
Dancing Classrooms curriculum documented in "Mad Hot Ballroom," an
award-winning 2005 film about how the program is not about teaching
ballroom dance but instead about breaking social barriers. All
instructors for the program must be certified by Dulaine in New
St. Louis has four professional dance instructors who are paired
with a teacher at each school. St. Louis co-founder Lauren Wilmore
is a ballroom dancer and performer who is now its executive
director, fundraiser and biggest cheerleader.
"It's awesome to see these kids transform into little ladies and
gentlemen and really embrace ballroom dancing," Wilmore said. "It's
the best thing in the world. No matter what kind of day you've had,
when you see a room of 10-year-olds doing the meringue, you're like,
OK, everything's going to be all right."
Part of the requirement for the schools is that all fifth-
graders the program is currently only for fifth-graders take the
course. This is a key component because camaraderie is crucial.
Wilmore said it's important for "the kids (to) learn that they
deserve to be treated with dignity and respect no matter what. …