'Mad Hot' Kids Click on the Dance Floor

At a grade-school cafeteria in Queens, New York, recently, a group of well-dressed fourth- and fifth-graders looked focused and calm as they paired up and got ready to show their stuff at a major school event.

One student, Juliette, admitted she had butterflies in her stomach. Another student said, "I just want to do my best today."

In a world of hip-hop and video games, an unlikely pastime has transformed these 10- and 11-year-olds -- old-school ballroom dancing.

'They Didn't Want to Go Near Each Other'

Before their first lessons four months ago, Phillip and Juliette from Public School 98, said that dancing together seemed like punishment.

"I just got so afraid of being with a girl," said Phillip, who added that he had never held a girl's hand before.

Phillip and Juliette had never even spoken to each other before dance lessons, so their first steps together took some cajoling from dance teacher Julius Adams.

"They didn't want to go near each other," said Adams.

While the boys were on one side of the room, acting as if -- in Phillip's words -- the girls had "cooties," the girls were on the other side, feeling something else.

"They're saying, 'oooh,' and I'm just sitting there..." Juliette began. Deep inside, she thought, "I want to dance."

In class, the instructors broke down the dance steps in ways that the kids understood. Slowly, they learned the steps and the rhythms. But that was the easy part. Getting girls and boys to connect would be a lot tougher.

Margarita, from Public School 41, said the girls couldn't make eye contact with the boys; eye contact is crucial to making ballroom dancing work.

"Well, most of the girls wouldn't look at them [the boys]. They would just look behind them," she said.

Jake, her partner, said being in charge was the toughest thing.

"Leading the girls, when we dance and trying to make sure they focus and doing the right stuff, because if the boy can't lead, it all goes wrong," Jake said.

The Click

All this training culminates in a city-wide dance tournament. To make last year's popular documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," cameras followed another group of kids -- from first steps to the final competition.

Amy Sewell, a writer and producer of the film, said that the transformation was astounding.

"Suddenly, it clicks," she said. "And they do act like those little ladies and gentlemen that they, it's kind of been you know pounded into their heads to be."

And when that "click" happens -- the kids feel it.

Margarita said the change happened for her when she stopped being afraid of her partner. "I remember ... it's just like a boy, it doesn't really matter. It's not like we need to go on a date or anything," she said.

Introducing ballroom dance to city kids to teach them poise and manners was the brainchild of professional dancer Pierre Dulaine.

Dulaine says he had to beg the first six schools to give it a shot. Twelve years later, 12,000 New York City school kids are in the program.

"If you put a piece of music on and give them a hint of what the character is, they can just take it and develop it from there for themselves," Dulaine said. "Steps are cheap. ... It's the joy that's priceless."

Making the Finals

For this year's tournament, five couples from 120 schools across the city competed -- including Phillip and Juliette, who learned the meringue, foxtrot, rhumba, tango and swing.

Phillip's weekends used to be all about playing basketball, but to prepare for the competition, he spent several hours a day getting his moves down, trying to remember all he had learned. And he said Juliette taught him a lot.

"I like that she is very determined to win," he said. "She teaches me to keep up my frame, look at her, remember my steps, be on beat with her."

Phillip's father said he was "totally surprised" by his son's commitment. "I always was like, 'basketball, basketball, he has to play basketball.' So to see him ballroom dancing is amazing, it really is," he said.

As the couples advanced in the citywide competition, Jake and Margarita from Public School. 41 on the red team, and Juliette and Phillip from Public School 98 on the emerald team, represented their schools.

"If I don't get that trophy, I'll be so upset, 'cause I really want that trophy," said Margarita.

The kids compete in a high school cafeteria, though to them -- and their parents and teacher -- it is a grand stage.

Before dancing the meringue with Juliette, Phillip ticked off things to remember while dancing: "Look at each other. Remember the steps. And mostly have a good time."

Phillip's parents watched proudly from the sidelines. "I am impressed," said his mother, Jill Hood. "Because Phillip is fidgety, he has to move, he has to move. That's why I'm not surprised he is dancing because he moves so much."

The judges -- all professional dancers -- took careful notes, watching for poise and position, coordination and eye contact.

"What's important is taking part in the sport and not the winning of the sport," said Dulaine. "It's important to enjoy the journey, getting there."

The disappointment was clear on the on the faces of kids who didn't make the final cut. But the three teams that did -- including Jake and Margarita and Phillip and Juliette -- were elated. They will compete in the all-city finals on Feb. 8 in Manhattan.

Phillip and Juliette are confident about their chances of winning. "If you be the best and forget the rest, then you'll be very good," said Phillip.

And even though they're eager to take home the grand prize, after four months of intense practice, Phillip and Juliette have already won.

As Juliette said, "'Cause we've gotten this far, we've worked so hard. And that's what really counts."

And Phillip's take on the competition? "I agree 100 percent with my partner," he said.

For more information about Pierre Dulaine and the American Ballroom Theater, visit www.americanballroomtheater.com.