“Show your diamond, comb your hair,” Marvilla Marzán sing-songs, demonstrating a tango move, left arm floating gracefully to the center of the music classroom at Villas Elementary School before sweeping past her head.
At Littleton Elementary, Karen Debitetto calls out: “Crispy chicken wings, crispy chicken wings.” Immediately dozens of arms form an L and extend to the ceiling.
Marzán and Debitetto are speaking the language of dance … to Lee County fifth-graders participating in Dancing Classrooms, a 25-year-old international program that uses ballroom dancing to improve academic performance and social skills. ‘Pancakes,’ ‘promenade’ and scorpion’ are part of the lingo designed to lessen the anxiety for 10 and 11 year olds whose world often still revolves around the chance of cooties.
Marzán, or ‘Miss Marvilla’ as her students call her, has been a teaching artist since Dancing Classrooms was introduced to Lee County Schools in 2008 by Miromar Development President and CEO Margaret Antonier. More than 9,000 local students have completed the 10-week program, learning so much more than the steps and nuances of the tango, foxtrot, merengue, rumba, swing and waltz.
“Dancing Classrooms has proven to change lives,” says Antonier. “Students do better in school, they learn respect and social skills. They become ladies and gentlemen.”
“It’s magic,” says Susan Stauffer, a teaching artist at Bonita Springs Elementary. “I experienced it personally through my daughters. Now, as a substitute teacher at the middle school I see the lasting impact.”
During a classroom visit in early February, students at Littleton are still a little rusty. They’re only four weeks in. Some teams are crowding or bumping classmates, stepping on toes … Others are still bashful about looking their partner in the eye.
Marzán sees considerable improvement in her class at James Stephens International Academy from the previous week … so much so she promises to bring donuts the following week if the students can master the ‘donut’ turn.
“Show me the donut turn,” she encourages. And they do … flawlessly.
“This is fun,” says Fred’nica Scott. “I knew I would like it because I love dancing to hip hop.”
Her classmate David Jimenez admits he was dreading the required classes. “Holding hands was so uncomfortable at first but I don’t mind it now.”
Practice will make perfect. Polish and poise will come. And the initial awkwardness will give way to confidence.
At Villas Elementary, students display finesse and expertise still lacking in their peers at James Stephens and Littleton. They completed Dancing Classrooms in the fall and have performed for parents, fourth-graders and at the Fall Exhibition at Miromar Outlets. The shopping center is the Dancing Classrooms founding sponsor, contributing over $500,000 to date, and donating more than 1,000 brightly colored T-shirts for the exhibitions, presented in fall and spring.
Dancing Classrooms is administered by The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools as part of the curriculum at eight elementary schools this year.
“I was extremely impressed when Margaret introduced me to Dancing Classrooms,” says Foundation President and CEO Marshall T. Bower. “The program not only impacts the children but everyone they will come in contact with. It gives students important tools they will use throughout their lives.”
Tools such as increased confidence for facing their fears and overcoming qualms and concerns that are universal in the fifth grade.
“I was terrified,” says Villas student Mia Colon. “I didn’t want to touch anyone – especially boys. Some kids rushed to wash their hands after class.”
Fueled by encouragement and inspiration from their teaching artists, the students eventually looked forward to the dance sessions.
“By the last day I was excited to dance in front of the fourth-graders,” says Diego Ramirez. He and Mia are among the 12 students competing for Villas in the Dancing Classroom Team Match, “Colors of the Rainbow,” presented April 27 at Miromar Design Center.
Each of the dance teams are selected by their teaching artist and approved by the schools’ staff. Boys and girls will transform into young ladies and gentlemen with knee-length cocktail dresses, dress shirts and pants. Sashes, hair bows and ties in aqua, purple, fuchsia and other vivid hues proudly show school allegiance.
Colors of the Rainbow gives students an opportunity to perform on a grander stage, in front of the public and vie for the first-place trophy. For Ambrielle Calixte, Parker Glaze and their Littleton classmates, they’ll be dancing in the shadows of last year’s team which won the school’s first-ever title.
“Lehigh always beats us,” notes Parker. “But not last year.”
Miromar Outlets also sponsors a fundraising block party on the eve of Colors of the Rainbow. Rodney Lopez, Dancing Classrooms executive director, often attends the party; he also serves as the master of ceremony at the team match, calling out the six dances. World champion ballroom dancer and Dancing Classrooms founder Pierre Dulaine has attended past events.
For students, lessons learned in just 10 weeks will last a lifetime, long after the music fades and they journey into sixth grade, high school and beyond.
“I always see a change in the kids,” said Debitetto. “This is one of the most brilliant dance programs written for children.”
“This is more than dance. The kids don’t believe us when we tell them at the beginning they’ll remember what they learned,” said Marzán, then turning to directly address the students. “You’re going to remember Miss Marvilla.”
“Your mind and feet will always remember,” she promises.