Lyons Recreation Center was lit up like a music hall with cars parked helter-skelter along Louisiana Avenue’s neutral ground. No, the free event was not a local audition for “So You Think You Can Dance,” but a competition featuring elementary and middle-school students performing traditional salsa, waltz, tango, merengue and swing dance. The Second Annual MindSteppers Dance Championship showcased public and private school children who have diligently been practicing social dance techniques as an extracurricular activity.
“I did not expect that all the kids could be so excited,” said Claire Couvreur, a teacher-instructor at Lycée Francais.
The competition is the culmination of the MindSteppers Teacher-Training Program at six schools - Joshua Butler Elementary School in Westwego, Gretna No. 2 Academy for Advanced Studies, Immaculate Conception School in Marrero, International School of Louisiana in the Lower Garden District, Lycée Francais de la Nouvelle Orleans in Uptown and Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers. Nathalie Gomes Adams,
MindSteppers’ co-director, says partner dancing yields many benefits, including improving children’s behavior, building self-confidence and teaching social and life skills such as good communication, etiquette, and tolerance.
Owner of Dance Quarter and a champion swing dancer, Adams was also an instructor with Dancing Classroom, which was featured in the documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about New York City public school children learning to social dance. After moving to New Orleans, Adams created a similar program in 29 Jefferson Parish schools.
Friday night, she supervised the contest among 165 students. Competitors, dressed in fancy costumes, sat expectantly waiting their turns in the spotlight. Judges were already in place. The stage was set with golden trophies to award top dancers while parents and friends assembled in bleacher seats ready to be dazzled.
“They’ve been practicing a month strong,” said Mabel Ray, mother of La’Jae Todd, a fifth-grader at Harriet Tubman. “It’s all she’s been talking about lately.”
First-graders from several schools - girls in red tutus and boys in red suspenders - started swinging to “Frogman” Henry’s anthem, “Ain’t Got No Home.” Swoons to the tune of “Fernando’s Hideaway” elicited audience gasps and shimmies brought a burst of applause.
A first-grade trio from Hope Stone New Orleans rocked out to the Jackson 5’s “ABC” with pantomimed assistance from the sidelines. Every first grader got a prize.
By second and third grade, finalists demonstrated real panache, causing salsa judges to circulate for closer looks.
“I’m loving that they’re doing this with the kids - teaching them other cultures with dancing,” said Leontine Benoit, grandmother to Sanai Benoit who waltzed for Gretna No. 2.
To learn the dances, nine teacher coaches participated in monthly workshops at Dance Quarter, not only to get the steps, but how to be both leader and follower. Maria “Pepa” Lopez had already been a swing dance student herself at Dance Quarter.
“The hardest part is to recruit the boys - they don’t want to touch,” said Lopez, a Spanish teacher at Gretna No. 2. “It takes a month to get them to dance together.”
Her student, Ashley Sutherland, won a prize for salsa. “I love how I could express myself while dancing,” Ashley said.
Krista Rae Szaflarski, who heads Harriet Tubman’s after-school enrichment programs, used the school motto of “courage and grit” to encourage students’ commitment to dancing. Five Tubman couples placed in the competition.
“The kids were better dancers than myself by the end,” Szaflarski admitted.
“I expected them to like it, but didn’t expect them to fall in love with salsa and merengue!”