Dance lessons a la 'Mad Hot Ballroom' come to Los Angeles
A nonprofit hopes to replicate the success the New York program achieved with underprivileged kids, who learn to be young ladies and gentlemen as they do the foxtrot, tango and other classic dances.
June 12, 2010|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
Dance instructor Danny Ponickly dips Danna Pelaez, 12, as other students watch during lessons at Breed Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights. The program is run by Ballroom Madness, a local nonprofit organization fashioned after American Ballroom Theater, the New York group whose work in schools was featured in the 2005 movie "Mad Hot Ballroom."
(John W. Adkisson / Los Angeles Times)
The boys of the ballroom dance class had their doubts — what with the cooties and the pressure and having to hold hands with girls.
But a week before competition, Junior Sanchez showed nothing but confidence as he spun one long-lashed young lady after another across the dance floor.
"Some girls are too picky to touch you," the 10-year-old said. "Or they always want to tell you what to do or they look at you funny. But that's OK. I just keep dancing."
The fifth-grader from First Street Elementary School in Boyle Heights recently joined 64 other classmates in a new, more graceful form of physical education. They're learning five classic dances: the foxtrot, the tango, the rumba, the swing and the merengue. And on Monday, they will face off in a dancing contest against two other Boyle Heights elementary schools.
Competition and rhythm are only part of the lesson. In 10 weeks, students are transformed from fidgety preteens into ladies and gentlemen. They begin each practice by standing in a neat line, heads straight and arms linked in escort position. They greet one another and say thank you when they trade partners. And, despite giggles and whispers, a few now and then learn to lock eyes.
The program is run by Ballroom Madness, a local nonprofit organization fashioned after American Ballroom Theater, the New York dance group whose work in schools was featured in the 2005 movie "Mad Hot Ballroom." Fifteen minutes into class at First Street, Daniel Ponickly, artistic director of Ballroom Madness, stood in a polished three-piece suit, scanning the auditorium for slouchy shoulders, dropped elbows and wandering eyes. It was the ninth week of practice, with the contest only nine days away.
"This is not the dance of Frankenstein," Ponickly hollered. "Move those hips. This is merengue!"
Ponickly was one of the teachers who helped launch the New York program. He hopes that, with the help of donations and grant money, the program will have as much success with underprivileged students in Los Angeles. "I want them to stand up tall, to be proud of what they're doing, to walk into a room and feel significant," he said.
With the toughest part — learning to hold hands — behind them, the rookie dancers moved about the room in unison, many of the girls a head taller than the boys. Some smiled and glided to the music. Others stiffly pushed through each move with a look of pained resignation.
Up front, Isabel Escobeda prompted her partner to pick up the pace as she shuffled her feet in a ruffled, turquoise dress. She was one of 10 students chosen to vie in the competition. The rest will perform for their families and friends in an upcoming dance show.
Isabel, who is 10, said she often practices her moves at home with her 5-year-old brother.
"Hopefully we can make it to the finals and win something," she said.
Jairo Muñoz's ambitions were more modest. The 11-year-old from one of the other competing schools — Breed Street Elementary — was so nervous during the first few classes that he made himself sick. He has no problem keeping up on the dance floor during family parties, but ballroom dancing was something else.
"All I want to do is keep up with the steps," he said. "The turns, the spins, the swings."
Junior from First Street said he, too, felt early on as if he were going to pass out.
But he and his friends now comfortably chat about their moves or about certain dance partners they like better than others — based on their skills, he said, not romance.
"I don't think of anyone like that," Sanchez said. "I like to go home and dance with my mom instead."
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