Jorge Alonso Perez, executive director of Dancing With the Children (left), stands with Edgewood ISD ballroom dance competition winners and Robert Ramirez, dance instructor (right). Photo courtesy of Nuvo Multimedia.
Jorge Alonso Perez, executive director of Dancing With the Children (left), stands with Edgewood ISD ballroom dance competition winners and Robert Ramirez, dance instructor (right). Photo courtesy of Nuvo Multimedia.

Remember when you were in elementary school, and you were selected to be part of a school program that featured a dancing segment. In my case, I was in the fourth grade, and I was part of a group that was taught square dancing. Not only was I supposed to learn how to square dance, I also had to touch a boy’s hand – yuck.

Anyway, week after week, we practiced the different dance movements until the big day arrived. Somehow, the four couples selected to perform before our parents, teachers, and student body survived the ordeal – and we were not scarred for life.

Fast forward to today’s school programs and we find that the Edgewood Independent School District is the only district in San Antonio featuring ballroom dancing in its curriculum and offering the dance classes to elementary students.

Robert Ramirez, dance instructor, instructs a couple on a tango movement. Photo by Ramon Hernandez.
Robert Ramirez, dance instructor, instructs a couple on a tango movement. Photo by Ramon Hernandez.

The district has been offering ballroom dancing for eight years as part of its Dancing with the Children program. The program has taught hundreds of second, third, and fourth graders how to dance the tango, cha-cha, merengue, and swing.

Getting boys and girls to talk to each other at the awkward ages of eight to 10 is difficult enough – try getting them to hold hands and to be in dance form with the boy’s hand on his partner’s back. One can imagine the difficulties that dance instructors have to overcome to go beyond this stage to actually teach the young students the various dance movements. Yet, the dance instructors who dedicate their time to teach these children have succeeded.

The dance instructors are professional ballroom dancers who have taught and have competed for major dance studios. Robert Ramirez, one of the instructors, retired from dance to practice law full-time and is still considered one of the best ballroom dancers in San Antonio.

I attended a dancing class where the young students were learning how to dance the merengue and was amazed at how nonchalant the young couples looked standing in a circle waiting for instruction and conversing while being arm-in-arm. I told the dance instructor that I was surprised to see them so calm, considering their ages.

“Oh, they’re over that period,” he said.

Young couples at Las Palmas Elementary are in dance position, ready to begin weekly dance lesson. Photo by Ramon Hernandez.
Young couples at Las Palmas Elementary are in dance position, ready to begin weekly dance lesson. Photo by Ramon Hernandez.

To participate in the dance program, students are nominated by counselors and teachers and must have their parents’ consent. Enrollment in the program averages about 180 students per year.

Students are taught two dances each school year. The students meet one hour a week for their dance lessons and are taught proper posture and frame, dance patterns, timing, etc.

Dances are selected by Dancing with the Children Executive Director Jorge Alonso Perez and instructors determine a standard curriculum at the beginning of the year to insure that all students are taught the same material. This school year students are learning swing and merengue.

Can you imagine being nine years old and learning how to dance swing and merengue? Many of us, as adults, can only dream of trying to learn how to execute the intricate steps of the merengue and to move our hips to the merengue beat.

A dance competition is held at the end of the school year to determine the best dancers by school and by grade level. It is exciting to watch these young dancers exhibiting their dance abilities.

As young and inexperienced as they are between the ages of eight and 10, the dancing styles of these young couples are amazing. One can see and sense their competitiveness as they dance to be selected as the various winners of their school – something they work and train for since the beginning of the school year in August. Prizes are awarded to the winning “couples.”

The competing couples and their parents take these competitions seriously, and the couples dress up for the event.  You may see the girls wearing fancy sequined dresses while the boys wear suits or tuxedoes with matching color shirts to match their partner’s dress. Think “Dancing with the Stars” but with younger competitors.

Community leaders have served as judges for competitions and have included U. S. Rep. Joaquín Castro and Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood. Lola Falana, an actress, singer, and dancer, has also served as a special guest judge.

One might question the significance of teaching ballroom dancing to elementary students, but the benefits of participation in such a program extend far beyond merely learning how to dance. Dancing classes include activities designed to promote ease in public speaking, express creativity, teach social responsibility, and plant the seed for college and career plans.

As a result of participation in these dance programs, parents and teachers have seen marked improvement in the students’ school attendance; self-esteem; sense of self; discipline; pride in one’s appearance, posture, and demeanor; greater participation and expression in school activities; an expanded vocabulary; and an appreciation for teamwork.

Students interviewed for this article affirmed that they have a greater appreciation for attending school and the many benefits derived from participating in the dance program. I was especially impressed with these students’ self-confidence and their ability of self-expression at such a young age.

Many of the attributes the students gain in the dancing classes are valuable assets that will remain with them throughout their lives. What other school program can offer such benefits?

As word has spread of the ballroom dancing program at Edgewood ISD, there has been an increasing awareness and support by local ballroom dancing aficionados. Among them has been venerable San Antonio philanthropist Edith McAllister. A lover of ballroom dancing, McAllister is known to have been an excellent dancer in ballroom dancing circles. She has been a generous supporter of this ballroom dancing program for several years.

Executive Director Perez and the dance instructors are to be commended for sharing their passion for dance with future ballroom dancers.

Is there a Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers in the making?

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

Top image: Jorge Alonso Perez, executive director of Dancing With the Children (left), stands with Edgewood ISD ballroom dance competition winners and Robert Ramirez, dance instructor (right). Photo courtesy of Nuvo Multimedia.

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Gloria Almaraz

Gloria Almaraz is a former federal investigator. She is a freelance writer in San Antonio, Texas.