On a cold January day, around 24 students in a Linden STEM Elementary class were learning a Rumba.
Considering the popular dance styles one sees on, say, MTV, a class of fifth graders doing the Foxtrot is deserving of the unabashed double takes it garners.
On a cold January day that's exactly what happened as students and even teachers of Linden STEM Elementary on Cleveland Avenue peered into a cleared-out classroom to see what its fifth graders were up to.
Around 24 "ladies and gentlemen," as the students are called in the class, were paired and standing in a circle. In the middle was their dancing teacher artist, Miss Jen (aka Jen Wade), telling them to keep their "chicken wings" (arms) up throughout the entire dance sequence, this time a Rumba.
Wade was employed to instruct the fifth graders for 10 weeks by Dancing Classrooms, a New York- and Northeast Ohio-based program that uses ballroom dancing as a tool for social development and physical education.
Developed by former Broadway dancer Pierre Dulaine in New York in 1994, the program of ballroom for babes has inspired a Hollywood movie - "Take the Lead" starring Antonio Banderas - and a 2005 award-winning documentary, "Mad Hot Ballroom."
Thanks to Dulaine's protégé Jo Jo Graham, an Ohio native, the program came to the Cleveland area five years ago. Since then, the Northeast branch has taught more than 1,500 fifth and eighth graders in Cuyahoga, Summit and Lake counties ballroom dance.
The Linden STEM class is the program's central Ohio pilot. The school's principal Dr. Janet L. Hinds said she saw "Mad Hot Ballroom" in New York a few years ago and was immediately interested when Graham's email questioning whether her school would be interested in participating arrived in her inbox. It also helped that Graham had done the fundraising of the $3,000 the program requires.
Despite its benefits, convincing schools to allow Dancing Classrooms into the building can be difficult.
"Schools are in a funding crisis and they need class time. Principals are like 'You want to take 45 minutes twice a week?'" Graham said. "But the benefits of this are physical, social, artistic and cultural."
Dance is merely the first step to the real education taking place, from subjects such as geography (Argentina is home of the Tango and the capital of Argentina is Buenos Aires, the students say together) to interpersonal relations and respectful touching.
"They're getting along easier with the opposite sex. It's made them more mature and they're giggling less, which means more productive class time," said Linden STEM fifth-grade teacher Danielle Enoch.
After the 10 weeks of classes, the students performed each dance (including a fun line dance set to "Everybody Dance Now") for the parents and students who comprised their audience. Principal Hinds also announced that Linden STEM's current fourth graders would be participating in Dancing Classrooms next school year.
Kids doing the Merengue soon might not be such an unusual sight.