Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - March 24, 2006

Swing kids

Rock steps, turns and even the electric slide are all in an afternoon's work for fledging ballroom dancers

by Rebecca Wallace

The sound of sneakers scuff-scuffing across a classroom floor in the East Palo Alto Charter School mingles with the chants of the ballroom-dance teachers: "Triple step, triple step, rock step."

The children follow along, most in time, to Madonna's "Vogue." In one graceful moment, all the boys raise an arm and turn their partners perfectly.

Impressive, considering the boys and girls never once make eye contact with each other. Well, that's junior high.

"They're embarrassed to dance with the opposite sex; they're embarrassed to dance, period," says Julia Minson, a former competitive ballroom dancer who developed the after-school class as a volunteer. "But yesterday some people were peeking in the door watching and they (the dancers) weren't embarrassed. It's baby steps."

When you're teaching students who have no ballroom experience, who squirm with 12-year-old restlessness and constantly ask if they can go to the bathroom, it's perhaps inevitable that baby steps mingle with rock steps. Minson takes the small victories where she can find them.

On a recent afternoon, for example, she succeeds in getting the boys to walk out onto the floor with a dancer's attitude, rather than pointing at each other and laughing.

"I want to see some manly men," she calls from the sidelines. "Make me respect you." Gage Joiner, 12, holds back a giggle, but then fairly struts.

Overall, Minson feels the lessons the seven boys and eight girls are learning each Wednesday and Thursday are larger than left foot-right foot. There's the math of counting dance steps and following the beat, as well as the discipline of practicing regularly. The students, too, are learning the dynamics of working with a partner, Minson said.

"At times it can be weird," dancer Terrance Wright says, "but it's good."

The kids also get to see their teachers' own partnership at work. Minson's husband, Ryan, runs the class with her, and their seamless moves reveal that they were competitive dancers together for 10 years. Julia Minson's grace is especially notable, considering she's now eight months pregnant.

The two, who live in Palo Alto, got interested in the East Palo Alto Charter School last fall when they took part in a volunteer work day, cleaning classrooms and helping repaint the courtyard. Julia Minson got to chatting with principal Allison Leslie about the movie "Mad Hot Ballroom" — in which New York City kids take part in a citywide dance competition — and decided to start teaching kids for the first time.

Minson's Stanford connections (she's a graduate student in social psychology) have come in handy. Members of the Stanford Ballroom Dance Team often help teach her class, and on April 8 Minson's students will give a special (non-competing) performance at the Cardinal Classic, a large ballroom-dance competition.

Minson has also impressed another member of the Stanford community, LaDoris Cordell, who is special counselor to Stanford's president and a Palo Alto city councilwoman. The two recently met on campus.

Cordell said dancing can teach kids how to abide by rules, and that performing in front of an audience can be a momentous experience for them.

"The sense of being applauded, of being told by people who they have never met that they're wonderful, that they're talented . . . the more positive things these kids have in their lives, the more likely that they're going to do fine," Cordell said. "It worked in New York with the big movie ('Mad Hot Ballroom') and there's no reason why it can't work here."

One of the reasons Minson chose the East Palo Alto school was to expose lower-income kids to ballroom dance. It can be an expensive hobby, what with costumes, travel and the need to find practice space, she said. She's currently raising money to cover these types of expenses for the kids.

Minson herself remembers being unable to afford dance lessons. She started dancing as a child in the former Soviet Union, where she lived until coming to America in 1990 at the age of 12. Ballroom dancing had been state-subsidized in the U.S.S.R., but here she had to make her case to a Denver dance studio for half-price lessons.

"I cried; I was cute; I did errands at the studio," she said with a wry smile. Eventually she became a teacher, and her best student was a fellow named Ryan Minson.

These days, the kids in the Minsons' class say they're both nervous and excited about the Cardinal Classic. On a recent Thursday afternoon, they repeatedly run their routine, which starts out with simple swing steps and turns into the electric slide, all with Madonna chanting and wailing "Vogue" in the background.

Is the electric slide a typical ballroom move? Minson laughs. "Not technically," she says. "I wanted to give them the opportunity to be more expressive, to clap and shake."

Vika Samarina from the Stanford Ballroom Dance Team helps the Minsons, unobtrusively guiding a couple in the back who are having trouble navigating a turn. In between renditions of the dance, the boys hop up and down and the girls titter, but each time they perform there's a noticeable improvement.

After class, student Laura Eslava is quietly enthusiastic about everything, saying she's enjoying her first dance class ever and often practices at home with her little niece.

"It's not hard. I like learning dance steps," she says.

There's one thing she's not as enthused about, though. When asked if she likes Madonna, Laura asks, "Who's she?"

Info: For information about the Cardinal Classic, go to www.sbdt.org. Contact Julia Minson at jminson@stanford.edu.

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