AS I SIT IN the auditorium of St. Francis de Sales Elementary School in West Philly, watching fifth-graders execute dances whose steps I wish I knew, my brain keeps wandering away from a point that Jane Brooks hopes I'll latch onto.

"This program has totally raised their self-esteem," Brooks whispers excitedly as we watch the students fox-trot to Peggy Lee's "Fever," which is booming through the sound system.

Some kids, biting their lips in concentration, are workmanlike in their moves. Others beam charismatically at the audience as they fleetly skim the stage.

I'm mesmerized. It's not because the kids look like they're brimming with self-esteem, but because I'm watching adolescent boys and girls dance in each other's arms, without a trace of the raunch or irony that infects nearly every aspect of male-female interaction in today's popular culture.

The boys wear tucked-in shirts and straightened ties. The girls wear pretty dresses, or their school uniforms. They bow and curtsy at the end of their dance, then the boys escort the girls, by arm, off the stage.

The girls always stand to the boys' right because, as dance instructors Garincha Hilaire and Jennifer Janson explain to the audience, "The right side is a place of honor. We put our ladies on the side of honor."

Amazingly, the kids don't appear self-conscious about their physical contact - even though some girls tower over their partners. Maybe it's because their moves are so good, the kids know they won't be seen as merely wholesome.

They'll also be seen for what they're becoming:

Amazing hoofers.

The kids at St. Francis are among nearly 800 fifth-graders in 14 Philadelphia public, charter and parochial schools who are taking part in a 10-week program called Dancing Classrooms Philadelphia. They've been learning classic ballroom dances - the fox trot, meringue, rhumba, swing and tango - and the best among them will compete against each other in a final competition next weekend.

If the program sounds familiar, it's because Dancing Classrooms, launched in New York public schools by the American Ballroom Theater, was the subject of a terrific 2005 documentary called "Mad Hot Ballroom." Since then, the licensed program has been replicated in other cities, including Chicago, Dallas, Toronto and, now, Philly.

Jane Brooks helped bring it here. She's co-founder of a new nonprofit called the Arts in Schools Collaborative, whose primary offering, for now, is Dancing Classrooms. For years, she'd been a fan of the program and its founder Pierre Dulaine (in "Mad Hot Ballroom," he's the elegant white-haired charmer who emcees the final competition).

And she wanted the program to do for Philly kids what it has done for kids elsewhere, by recruiting and training teaching artists who follow the Dancing Classrooms instruction curriculum.

"The children learn etiquette. They learn appropriate behavior between boys and girls," said Brooks.

"They learn these beautiful dances, and their history. Their focus, their teamwork is incredible. It spills over into other parts of their lives. I've seen children blossom."

Case in point at St. Francis - whose students represent dozens of nationalities - is a fifth-grader who, just a few years ago, was living in a Somalia refugee camp with his parents and 10 siblings.

"Since he was the one who knew how to use a slingshot the best, he'd hunt birds for their meals," says St. Francis principal Sister Constance Touey.

"When he came here, he was quiet and shy. He's slowly come out of his shell, but this program has been life-changing. Look at him."

She points out a tall, handsome boy who smoothly leads his partner through the merenge, grinning as they spin. He's so suave, it's hard to reconcile his early upbringing with his onstage aplomb.

Some of the St. Francis dancers participate in an after-school program in which they're mentored by Penn students.

Lately, says Sister Constance, it's the kids who've been doing the mentoring.

"Last week," she says, "they were actually teaching the Penn kids 'the swing'!"

Dancing Classrooms semifinals were conducted yesterday, and the program will conclude with a big competition on Dec. 15 at the Merriam Theater.

The guest judges will be Philadelphia's incoming first lady Lisa Nutter and local dancers Zane Booker and Sandra Fortuna.

The event, which is free and open to the public, will be emceed by "Mad Hot Ballroom's" very own Pierre Dulaine.

For more info, go to www.dancingclassrooms philly.org.

Or just attend the event, and prepare to be wowed. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: