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Hips swing in style

Of all the merengue partners in all the fifth grades in all the schools in the Dancing Classrooms Philly 10-week program, wouldn't you know, Gabriel Garcia ended up matched with Shaila Cruz.

Fifth graders in the Dancing Classrooms Philly program show their mastery at the Merriam.
Fifth graders in the Dancing Classrooms Philly program show their mastery at the Merriam.Read moreBONNIE WELLER / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Of all the merengue partners in all the fifth grades in all the schools in the Dancing Classrooms Philly 10-week program, wouldn't you know, Gabriel Garcia ended up matched with Shaila Cruz.

And heading into the finals of the first-ever Colors of the Rainbow Team Match yesterday afternoon at the Merriam Theater - a big deal, hosted by Pierre Dulaine of Mad Hot Ballroom fame, with 70 students from six schools - it was no secret that Gabriel and Shaila were, let's just say, barely on speaking terms.

"He talks too much," said Shaila.

"I'm not a romantic guy," said Gabriel, explaining why he wouldn't be looking exactly into Shaila's eyes on stage when they danced for the John Welsh School at Fourth and York.

Gabriel was the first student to arrive at the theater, at Broad and Spruce, an hour early. Neither he nor his mom, Vanessa Echevarria, had ever been south of Market Street.

And many of the parents and other relatives in the cheering and occasionally teary audience had never seen their 10- and 11-year-old children dance - at least not like this, not with elegance and grace and discipline and rhythm and chivalry and respect, plus more than a little shaking of those skinny little hips and tossing of the heads. The dips during the tango - particularly for the tightly focused Lewis C. Cassidy School team of Kayla Samuels and a slightly amazed-looking David Saie, front and center at the precise dip moment as the six pairs moved in a circle - prompted near pandemonium in the audience.

"I never even knew she could move like that," said LeRoy Thompson, whose daughter, India, danced the tango with Donnay Burden, a hips-shaker of particular note for the Russell Byers Charter School.

Dancing Classrooms Philly, founded this year by Jane Brooks, Joyce Burd and Harvey Kimmel, is based on the program created by ballroom dancer Dulaine in New York, subject of the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom and the Antonio Banderas movie Take the Lead. Donors filled up dozens of rows. Lisa Nutter, wife of the mayor-elect, was a judge.

In Philly, the program involved mandatory, twice-weekly sessions for 700 students at 14 public and Catholic schools. It resumes in March.

The 17 teachers couldn't say enough about the program, teaching the kids self-respect, manners and confidence. Many were reluctant at first, in that "I will never be caught touching a girl/boy" manner familiar to anybody who calls a fifth grader a pal.

"We really didn't have anybody who was in it and didn't crack a smile," said Rosemary Cataldi, principal of the John Hancock School.

"Just to get the kids to touch is hard work," said Welsh teacher Marck Best. "You have to kill like all the cooties in the world."

Before long, children were teaching parents to fox-trot. Or were like Amanda Marafino, who would absent-mindedly do the swing while on the phone with her grandmother. Alanis Reyes of silver-medal-winning St. Veronica wrote teacher Linda Camardo that the program had changed her life.

In any case, it was surely the first time a student could be heard shouting "Move your hips!" to a pal.

So said Ariel Moore, a rumba dancer from St. Francis De Sales, another silver-medal-winning school, as she leaned forward from the second row, urging on classmate Charles Kelly on stage with Miata Abu during the second round, in which teams danced a style other than their specialty. Her team promenaded across the stage with Miss America waves, in precise escort position, ladies to the right.

Also dancing the rumba yesterday was Michael Tucker and his late-arriving partner, Mehki Miliner, of the Cassidy School in Overbrook. "I really liked it," he said. "It taught me there's more than hip-hop dancing."

Mehki arrived in time, having taken extra time to do her hair. Not so Keefe Locke-Sheed's partner, who was a no-show. "He's so mad at her," teacher Best said. Laura Bautista filled in, and Keefe took to the stage with gusto.

The Cassidy students came with high hopes, their gym teacher, Lorraine Bias, predicting they would come from nowhere, like the Jamaican bobsled team. But despite impressing a lot of people - does it get any better than head-taller Asia Perkins and debonaire partner General Smalls dancing the fox-trot, or best friends Lawrena Sayon and Mahdee Tribune at the meringue? - they got a bronze.

In the end, the day belonged to Byers, led by teachers Ollie Barnett and Debbie Schmid, neither of whom had slept the night before. Barnett put together the dream team of Nyadiah Solomon-McCloud and Troy Perry, who, when they danced backstage, enveloped each other in a lovely rumba zone of concentration and finesse.

When it became clear they had won, tango specialist Donnay Burden did what now comes naturally: He shook his hips.

Meanwhile, despite their team's bronze finish, the feuding Shaila Cruz and Gabriel Garcia seemed changed by the experience. Afterward, Shaila gave Gabriel a hug. He did not turn away.

"They don't like each other," noted teammate Samantha Bardales, who danced the swing with Carlos Cruz. "But they dance good."