They're Having A Ball

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Children might initially attend classes because their parents want them to, but they won't want to come back unless those classes have a certain coolness factor. And the media are confirming that dancing is very cool. The Broadway musical Swing and movies like Dance with Me, Swing Kids and Swingers all celebrate dancing. Ballroom-style dance routines are also turning up on MTV and in movies like What Women Want, Blast from the Past and The Mask of Zorro. Ballroom competitions are being presented more frequently on TV. Latin stars like Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Carlos Santana are releasing numerous ballroom songs that appeal to young audiences. Jim Anzelmo, an 18-year-old senior at Madison's Edgewood High who takes ballroom as a gym elective, was strongly influenced by a 1998 ad for the Gap featuring handsome young people doing the lindy hop. He remembers thinking, "It would be great to learn to dance like that."

Today's dance teachers understand that students who enjoy their classes are likely not only to stay but also to bring along their friends. Price Tyson, 9, and his older brother Robby Tyson, 14, attended a weeklong dance camp last summer at Gulf Coast School of Performing Arts in Biloxi, Miss. The brothers had so much fun that they decided to continue dance lessons again this summer and have persuaded "a whole lot of other guys to come to camp."

A fellow Performing Arts student, Meagan Moran, 16, was also won over last summer, after she had taken a dance class while attending a program at Duke University. There, she reported, "swing was the hottest thing, and kids from all over the country were learning from the counselors." Dancing with her was Stephanie Skupien, 17, who had noticed that in her high school, "swing is so popular that there's a lot of peer pressure to learn the right steps."

Kids also appreciate that being able to dance well can give them confidence at a time in their life when they need all the help they can get. Brieanna Everts, 14, acknowledges that she was really shy until she began dancing the East Coast swing and the lindy hop at the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association. She now finds it much easier to handle social situations. Also once timid, Andrea Mosley, 16, of Alta Loma, Calif., learned to dance at a swing camp she attended with her family. Clearly more poised, she happily admits that "dance helped me get out of my shell." Because one of the etiquette rules of ballroom is that a girl who refuses a dance must then sit it out, boys feel less risk of humiliation at dances. With that issue out of the way, they can concentrate on perfecting their steps.

Ballroom classes and parties provide a safe environment that parents--and kids--appreciate. Linda Wakefield, a mother of five and the assistant artistic director of the ballroom-dance company at Brigham Young University, notes that "kids today want to go out and have fun, but in a way that they don't have to be violated--physically, mentally or emotionally." Ken Richards, national director of publicity for the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association, also believes that "kids are looking for activities where they can socialize, where boys and girls can get together, without its being about sex and drugs and violence."

So when do we start? Many teachers and ballroom experts hold that the younger a child is when introduced to ballroom the better. "If you introduce dance at a grade-school level, you are doing everyone a public service," suggests Michael Fitzmaurice, publisher of the magazine Dancing U.S.A. "The principles taught in ballroom are skills that children can carry over into other areas. It is like tennis or golf--when you are taught the fundamentals, you have the ability to develop good form throughout." Middle schoolers in particular benefit from ballroom, believes Tammy Hutchinson of the Atlanta-based Cotillion group, because "they're trying to find themselves at a hugely self-conscious time in their lives. And they don't have many social opportunities. So we provide a supervised, structured environment where they can learn something but also have a lot of fun." That's why Caryl Fernandez signed up her 10-year-old daughter Katie for salsa lessons at the Hama Dance Center in Studio City, Calif. She feels "kids today have a lot of stress. And when they're dancing, they seem to be happy. The music moves their hearts."

The good news for ballroom aficionados--and anxious parents hoping their kids will find something wholesome to do and stick with it--is that this fad looks to have some legs. Many beginners are continuing to dance long after they complete their classes. They are discovering, as Ronnen Levinson says, that the "world of ballroom is enormously complex, and there is always something new to explore." Or as newly expert East Coast swing-dancer Brieanna Everts puts it, "Once you start dancing, you just can't stop!"

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