Jefferson schools’ ballroom dancing puts tiny dancers in the spotlight

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- John James Audubon Elementary School fifth-graders dance 'Gangnam Style' at the Martin Marino Seventh annual Dance Challenge at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner on Wednesday.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- John James Audubon Elementary School fifth-graders dance 'Gangnam Style' at the Martin Marino Seventh annual Dance Challenge at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner on Wednesday.

Under bright lights and in front of a crowd of about 5,000 spectators, couples dressed in sparkling gowns and sharp tuxedos filled the dance floor at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner.

“Dancers ready?” called out the announcer. “Let’s see you salsa!”

Some of the dancers were very expressive, shaking their hips and waving their arms with huge smiles, while others stuck to the fundamentals of the step with brows furrowed in intense concentration.

Classmates, families and fans cheered loudly, holding up signs and blowing noisemakers.

Black, white, Asian, Latino, tall, short, blond, brunette — all things were equal on the dance floor as the serious-faced judges walked among the diverse group of pint-sized pairs and made marks on clipboards.

The 342 dancers at Wednesday night’s Martin Marino seventh annual Dance Challenge were trimmed down from a group of close to 1,000 fifth-graders who spent the school year taking ballroom dance classes once a week.

“This has been the most exciting opportunity these kids have ever been afforded,” said Sheliah DiJohn, a health teacher at Hazel Park Elementary School.

It’s the school’s first year participating, and while DiJohn said the school provides the students everything they need to be successful, the dance program offers something more.

“They are transformed from elementary students into young ladies and gentlemen,” DiJohn said.

Ballroom etiquette is also part of the curriculum, Marino said.

The challenge features nine couples from each school competing in two heats of cha-cha, salsa, waltz and tango — both individually and as teams.

It’s the only public school ballroom dance program in the state, and each year a labor of love for Marino to coordinate and keep funded. The school district provides some money, but each year Marino also must rely heavily on sponsors.

While funding is always a challenge, the popularity of the program has only grown. Admission is free, and the event is later aired on a local television station.

Usually Marino and his wife — ballroom enthusiasts — dance at the competition, which also features professional shows. This year, however, he said he was too busy, having taken on more of the organizing duties.

The competition drew 19 participating schools, but Marino said that in the past they’ve had as many as 28 schools, and he hopes to increase the numbers next year.

“You’d be amazed at how excited the kids are,” said Hazel Park parent Cindy Randall. She said her daughter became her own instructor, videotaping herself at home and working on her moves.

The program helped her daughter build self-esteem, social skills and “it developed a real joy for ballroom dancing — something she’s never seen or experienced before,” Randall said.

Dressed in a turquoise gown with black gloves and a black ribbon choker necklace with a sparkling jewel, Hazel Park student Marissa Alexander said she’d be dancing the tango for the individual competition and the waltz in the team competition. While she said she’d taken ballet and tap, Marissa said, “It’s fun because you learn different stuff you never knew before.”

Classmate Joseph Jeffrey, dressed in a slick black tuxedo vest and bow tie, said his favorite step was the cha-cha because “you get to move fast.” His goal for the night was to “have fun and don’t mess up,” Joseph said.

DiJohn said she found that the kids don’t have the “ew” factor when it comes to dancing together. They just badly want to dance, even if it means with the opposite sex.

Marvin Davis, a parent of a Judge Lionel R. Collins Montessori School student, said his son practices constantly at home. “He truly loves it. He loves the competition of it, the creativity and learning something new,” Davis said.

In addition, his son’s grades have improved because “he’s doing something in school he likes,” he said.