The fifth-graders from Whitaker Elementary School were dancing on air Wednesday as they excitedly accepted the gold trophy in ballroom dancing.
The five-school dance-off competition marked the culmination of 10 weeks of dance classes where fifth-graders at each school learned merengue, foxtrot, rumba, tango, waltz, polka and swing dancing.
“When they were announcing third, I thought ‘Wow, maybe we have a chance,’” said Whitaker fifth-grader Marley Mitchell, 11. “It was overwhelming and so exciting.”
The fifth-annual competition, held at Smith Farm Elementary School, pitted couples from each school against each other in each dance type as a panel of judges observed.
Whitaker clinched first place, while Our Lady of Mercy and Union Cross tied for second and Forest Park and Smith Farm shared third.
“At first I was nervous, but then you get into it. It was a lot of practice and memorization,” said William Martin, 11, who danced the rumba and tango with Marley. “My favorite part is learning the dancing for when I’m older and go to dances.”
Wednesday’s competition was the finale to the “Dancing Classrooms” program where students learned dance, teamwork and life skills throughout 20 sessions.
The purpose of the program is to immerse the students in dance while also teaching them social skills, respect, self-confidence and teamwork, said Wednesday’s competition emcee Ann Guill.
“We’ve seen test scores for schools with the program go up. It helps with absenteeism, it helps with behavior problems,” said Guill, the director of Take the Lead North Carolina, the nonprofit that offers the Dancing Classrooms program.
“We have some data to back up the program’s success, but mostly it’s what you can see: just the respect, teamwork and positive interaction.”
In the first round of Wednesday’s competition, couples from each school performed each of the dance styles, wowing the gym full or parents with their swing and rumba prowess.
But in the second round, the couples — who wore colorful sashes to denote their school — had to pick a random dance from a hat to perform.
Dancing Classrooms instructor David Hawk said the students become well-versed in all the dance types throughout the program.
“When they first start, they don’t want to dance or even touch each other,” said Hawk, who taught the program to students at Smith Farm Elementary. “But it’s baby steps, and then suddenly they’re dancing.”
Dancing Classrooms began in New York City schools in 1994, founded by retired championship ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine.
The program has taken root in Forsyth County’s elementary schools throughout the past 10 years, Guill said, with about 7,500 students in 30 different area schools having participated.
All of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district’s elementary schools have the opportunity to participate in the program and opt into the annual competition.
“It’s so much beyond dancing. The bonding and interaction is my favorite part,” said Whitaker Principal Sharon Creasy, whose school has participated in the program for four years. “Yes, they’ll dance well at their weddings one day, but they’re also learning valuable life lessons.”
As the judges tallied their scores, the students took a detour from the traditional dancing with Hawk leading Smith Farm Elementary students in the viral “Baby Shark” dance, eliciting excited cheers from their peers.
The spirit boosters — a cheering section from each school — also got their shot to dance a line dance and the cha-cha slide.
“I like all of the dancing,” said Caleb Drape, 11, who competed in swing for Union Cross with partner Alona Dweh. “It’s kind of scary but also fun.”