Old time swing music echoed through the Park Elementary gym Friday as more than 60 fifth-graders stomped, twisted and rock-stepped their way through a dance lesson. It was the first of six weekly classes the students will take this spring as they learn how to swing dance, salsa and tango.
Suzy DiSanto, a local dance teacher and parent of a former Park student, led the students through the swing dance steps, then mingled among them as boys and girls paired up and tried it themselves.
DiSanto is the sole teacher at the nonprofit dance program she created for Durango’s fifth-graders, called Take the Lead. This year she is teaching classes at Park, Animas Valley, Riverview, Florida Mesa and Fort Lewis Mesa elementaries, St. Columba Catholic School and Durango Montessori. She has danced for more than 30 years and also teaches jazz, salsa and swing at Durango Dance.
Fifth-graders are an ideal age for the dance program because they are mature enough to learn the steps, but aren’t yet caught up in the sexual tension that comes with the teenage years, DiSanto said.
She started teaching the lessons seven years ago after watching the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about a ballroom dance program in the New York City Public School system. Her daughter Rosie Schultz, then a fifth-grader, wanted to replicate the dance lessons at Park and after a few conversations with teachers the six-week dance program was born.
Soon, the other schools began asking DiSanto to teach their fifth-graders. Dancing helps release the tension and energy that tend to build up during this time as students do a lot of annual testing, DiSanto said. The lessons are another opportunity to incorporate activity into students lives, which is always beneficial, she said.
Meanwhile, students practice valuable skills such as focus, multitasking and leadership as they learn to step to the beat of music and coordinate their movement with another person, she said.
The dance classes also teach social skills that transfer into the classroom setting, educators said. Dancing helps “normalize” interactions like holding hands and makes the experience less of the “boys versus girls eww kind of thing,” fifth-grade teacher Tom Curmano said.
“It creates an environment where kids have to step outside of their comfort level,” Curmano said. “Kids are more tolerant of each other when both people are struggling to figure out the dance.”
Boys and girls are taught to respect each other and work together as a unit as they learn the steps, DiSanto said.
Before DiSanto’s lessons begin, every class watches “Mad Hot Ballroom” so that students are prepared for the experience. And just like the movie, the students at each school pick a team of six couples who compete in an all-school dance off at the finale of their lessons.
DiSanto never charges the schools for classes and instead seeks out local grants to fund the program. Garnering financial support is always the toughest part of the experience, she said. But she can’t think about giving it up. Over the years she has seen former students go on to pursue other dance classes and perform in school musicals. For many students, her lessons are the only chance they will get to learn how to dance.
Working with the elementary schoolers is a bright spot in her day.
“Probably my most favorite thing I do in my life is this program,” she said. “I love seeing a kid be inspired by something they may never have had a chance to be inspired by.”