His periwinkle shoes have a texture that suggests the skin of a reptile. His feet are long, and it’s a lot of periwinkle to take in all at once, even with the considerable distraction of the powder-blue suit that hangs from his lanky frame. Loose is how he looks—confident, and ready to begin.
Introductions have been made, the dancers are positioned more or less evenly on the stage, and Miss Victoria is just now quieting the standing-room-only crowd. The music begins and she waits a few beats. “Five, six, seven, eight,” she breathes into the microphone, and twenty-eight feet burst into a foxtrot. The auditorium erupts with cheers, applause and shrieks. Cameras flash from every corner .
Up on the stage, I have the advantage of seeing every dancer at close range, watching footwork fancy and not-so, and feeling the full range of emotions—joy through angst—written on the faces of fourteen underage foxtrotters. I want to know who to thank for the brilliant musical selection, Frank Sinatra’s rendition of The Way You Look Tonight, which is literally and metaphorically soaring over the heads of the ten and eleven-year-old dancers, as I swipe at tears and try to give all seven couples my full attention.
Some girls are a foot taller than their partners, requiring the boys to tilt their heads at awkward angles to maintain eye contact and avoid staring into the budding breasts of classmates. While some dancers blush, others can’t stop grinning. While some glide, others shuffle. Some audibly count steps, while others hum along to the music. The boy in blue is one smooth dancer; the periwinkle shoes saunter through the slow steps and sprint through the fast ones.
Chicken wings up, toes facing toes, look like you’re having fun. For ten weeks, twenty sessions in all, they’ve heard this mantra again and again. They’ve practiced their socks off learning meringue, rumba, tango, swing and foxtrot. Fifth-grade boys and girls who wouldn’t have touched each other in March now comfortably coax each other around the stage, most in nearly perfect time with the music, hands firmly gripping shoulder blades or lightly touching bra straps.
It’s a warm May afternoon at the J.W. Catherine School on the southwestern edge of Philadelphia. Many students in this school—like their counterparts from the six other schools represented here today—live at or below the poverty level. Still, their parents have managed to dress them neatly, modestly, proudly for this special occasion—the 2009 Dancing Classrooms Philly Semifinal Competition.
Ballroom dance instructors have taught the children to behave like ladies and gentlemen, at least on stage; back in their seats, they’re far more exuberant as they cheer on classmates in the other dances. Each team has a color, worn in wide sashes by the young ladies, spelled out on laminated sheets safety-pinned to the backs of jackets and shirts for the young men.
I wonder where that boy found a dress shirt in exactly the shade (Flyers’ orange) of his partner’s sash. I’m drawn to a skinny girl who looks like her grandmother just fixed her up for church on Easter: a simple dress with a hint of lace at the knees, tights and shiny shoes, all topped off with a thick, knit cape that can’t quite camouflage her bony shoulders. Every stitch of her clothing is snow white, interrupted only by a red sash. She’s not the best dancer on the stage, but she’s clearly having fun.
The students have been coached to put a lot of hip motion into the Latin dances, and they’ve taken this instruction to heart. Parents all but swoon over the tango and gasp as their daughters mime sexy moves by pulling splayed fingers back across their foreheads. The rumba (or “roooooomba,” as Miss Victoria says) teams really sell it. Hips in every size and shape sway, wiggle or jerk, displaying a vast array of abilities.
The auditorium was warm even before the dancing began, and now someone has flung open the doors at the back and side of the room. Neighbors poke their heads in to see what all the commotion is, then stay to watch as the swing teams kick up their heels to Hit the Road Jack while the audience belts out the lyrics. One dimpled, dark-haired boy in a crisp tan shirt stands just a few inches taller than my four-year-old nephew. He’s giving it all he’s got—and he’s got plenty—and when the music stops I’m tempted to pick him up and hug him.
But then I remember I’m one of the judges, and aside from the need to comport myself as an impartial observer, I’ve only got a few seconds to finalize my scores for this round.
It’s so hard to assign numbers to what’s going on here. Each couple gets a score from 6 to 10. The 6s and 10s reveal themselves within the first several seconds of each dance, but my pencil hovers nervously over every 7, 8 and 9 before I commit to a score. Seven couples per dance, seven numbers to circle before the music stops, two sets of each dance, three busy judges. We dodge dancers, circle numbers, turn in score sheets. Then a new group takes the stage, and we do it all over again. There’s no time to compare notes or remember the scores we’ve given from one round to the next. Like everyone else in the auditorium, we’ll learn which two teams will advance to the finals at the end of the program, when all 210 team scores have been tallied.
My dance-related qualifications for being here are marginal: my dad and I were finalists in the jitterbug contest at a high-school father-daughter dance in 1976; come to think of it, my three sisters all were finalists in the same event with the same partner in subsequent years, so Dad probably deserves the credit there. Also, I’m related to the McNiff Twins of Irish step-dancing fame; OK, they’re not really famous and “McNiff” is just how our last name was mispronounced one St. Patrick’s Day. I did, however, watch my youngest sisters and their peers perform countless times during their grade-school years, so I appreciate the hard work involved in making these dances look easy and I recognize the joy streaming toward the stage from parents and teachers.
I’m lucky enough to be here as a judge because of my role at the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia. Dancing Classrooms Philly (modeled on the New York City program featured in the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom) is one of a hundred or so arts organizations I’ve had the privilege to work with since joining the Council staff a few years ago. I believe in the magic this program offers to Philadelphia schools, which matters more than dancing skills when it comes to being a judge.
Anyway, even an untrained eye can assess the criteria we’ve been given. I still want to give every couple a 10. It helps only slightly to know that each student will go home with a ribbon and that the afternoon will end with one big rainbow of a line dance that includes them all.
“I will feel a glow just thinking of you…” The second round of foxtrotting ended fifteen minutes ago, but I’ve got Old Blue Eyes and Young Blue Shoes under my skin. To the great delight of the home team supporters, the Catherine School has advanced to the finals, along with the Spring Garden School.
“Lovely…never, ever change.” I’ll never, ever hear that song again without recalling the eager faces, the periwinkle shoes and the way that little girl’s face lit up when I told her I liked her cape on my way out the door.Eileen Cunniffe is a lifelong resident of the Philadelphia area. After a quarter century of putting words into other people’ s mouths and manuscripts as a medical writer/editor and as a corporate communications manager, she has at long last begun to write her own, true stories. Her nonfiction has appeared in Wild River Review, ShortMemoir.com and the Travelers’ Tales anthology A Woman’ s World Again. Eileen manages two volunteer programs at the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia.