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Putting your best foot forward | Kimberly Garrison

We don't often equate ballroom dancing with 10- and 11-year-olds from urban schools. Dancing Classrooms Philly is changing that.

Dancing is fun and fitness.
Dancing is fun and fitness.Read moreIvan Sedlak / Getty Images/iStockphoto

We generally equate youth exercise with calisthenics and group sports.

Meanwhile, ballroom dancing, such as the waltz, tango, meringue, rumba, and mambo, generally are associated with social dancing for the privileged. Not 10- and 11-year-olds from urban schools, right?

Dance instructor and dancer Pierre Dulaine thought outside the box 25 years ago when he founded Dancing Classrooms, an arts program that teaches ballroom dance to upper elementary and middle school students.

I initially heard about Dancing Classroom through the 2005 documentary film Mad Hot Ballroom. The film followed New York fifth-grade students who had taken a ballroom and Latin dance classes. The documentary (which I highly recommend) touched my every emotion and was profoundly inspiring.

At the time I thought to myself: It would be great if they could bring that program to the Philly area. Obviously, I was not alone in my thinking; Dancing Classrooms Philly was launched in 2007. I was so smitten with the program that, even though I had no child or relative participating, I attended its 2009 closing ceremony at Temple University. The young students’ performances were simultaneously thrilling and heartwarming.

I believe that giving students opportunities to learn through social dancing not only provides wonderful exercise, but also fosters creativity, problem solving, persistence, team building, and joy.

Curious about the current status of the program, I reached out to the Philadelphia program director, Kate Lombardi. Lombardi, a graduate of the University of the Arts Dance program, became a teaching artist at Dancing Classroom Philly in 2008 and fell in love with the program.

“As a young artist, I was performing and looking for work to sustain me, but when I became a teaching artist I immediately feel in love with it. In my role now, I get to visit all of the schools and visit once or twice during the process. I get to see the evolution of the students and see the huge differences from beginning to end. I see the individual growth and see how they help their classmates. Witnessing the growth of the students is richly rewarding," Lombardi said.

Dancing is aerobic and tones muscles

The students are physically engaged for a full 40 minutes, twice a week; the in-school residency typically is 10 weeks. Dances such as the merengue, fox-trot, rumba, tango, swing, waltz, cha-cha slide, and stomp are all heart-thumping aerobic exercises as well as muscle pumping and toning.

Dance off the stress

Dancing naturally releases the feel-good chemicals in your brain, officially called endorphins. Endorphins give you a natural high, while simultaneously ridding you of feelings of anxiety and depression.

No equipment required

Unlike most youth sports, there is no expensive overhead, because the only equipment the students need is their own body. If you can walk, you can dance, which means every student can participate regardless of size, shape, ability, and there’s no striking out or missed baskets.

It truly is a win/win for everyone.

A step to better grades

Dancing will help kids improve their focus, which can improve performance in academic areas like reading and math. As a matter of fact, the experts say that physical activity can have an impact on cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior, all of which improved academic performance. These include enhanced concentration and attention as well as improved classroom behavior, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).

Spin into fitness

While solo dancing is fun, dancing together doubles the pleasure. Age, size, race, religion, nor social status matters, when it comes to dancing hand in hand and check to check, everyone is a winner!

Show your support

If you want to support Dancing Classrooms with your presence, you are invited to their 12th annual Colors of the Rainbow Team Match Grand Final Competition at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 2, at the Levitt Auditorium, University of the Arts, 401 S. Broad St. The event is free to the public, and I’m sure you’re gonna love it!