High school club proves ballroom dancing can be hip

Sunday, February 26, 2006

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Teenagers twitter in a warm room often used for prayer at the Living Community. Tonight, however, it's a room for dancing.

Sherry Readenour and Ken Gerber step into the middle of the room, with a wavy line of boys on one side and a wavy line of girls on the other.

The moment they touch, though, silence falls across the room. "And it is a one-two-three-four, rock step, triple step ...," Sherry chants as she and Ken show Central High School's Ballroom Dance Club how to swing.

The teenagers watch, giggling and talking, but soon, almost all are rock-step, triple-step, triple-stepping in place.

More than 40 of them gather most Tuesday nights. The response shocked Sherry when they first started the club, but perhaps she and Ken aren't just teaching the teens simple steps once a week in this warm room.

Perhaps it's something more.

"Maybe what's old is new again," Ken says.

Near the end of the line of ladies, 16-year-old junior Nisha Sheth holds her long black hair aside as she guides a friend through the steps.

Though she stays busy with sports and clubs and is ranked in the top five of her class, Nisha's been here since the first night the club started meeting.

"Dancing kind of gets your mind off of everything," she says later. "It's so much fun that you kind of forget everything that's going on and just dance."

And as she dances, Ken and Sherry circulate around the room, dancing to the side of students like training wheels until they get the steps right.

The small room grows warm with so many young dancers, and after a water break, they return to the two lines. In the middle again stand Ken and Sherry, this time ready to show the dancers the under-arm turn.

"You have to have energy in your arm," Ken explains. "She has to have energy in her arm."

You can't communicate without it, he tells them. And for Ken and Sherry, dancing is a way of communicating.

They learned five years ago, around the time they started dating, and they never stopped dancing.

Then, in her classes Sherry often pulled students up out of their seats and showed them a few steps. Maybe, she thinks, it was the popularity of the TV show "Dancing with the Stars," but soon, the kids were interested in learning more.

"I think it has something to do with actually touching someone and dancing," Sherry says before the class. She struggles with her words for a moment, but maybe, she says, they like it because it's so different from how they normally dance.

"OK, would you like to get a partner and try it?" she asks the students after the demonstration.

And while she helps a few find someone to dance with, Ken starts up the music.

Soon, the young men and women form two lines once again, this time to learn a hip check to go along with their swing.

In baggy jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, Christian Linten, 17, watches the new moves with his hat pushed high atop his head.

He scratches his chin.

The lessons are a first for Christian, a foreign exchange student from Germany who's studying at Mid-Buchanan, where he's a senior. And he came to add a little style to his hip-hop moves.

When it's time to start, though, he taps his feet awkwardly back and forth, his thumbs buried into his pockets. Then, he starts with a partner.

"OK Christian, you can do it," Rhiannon Stumpf, 18, tells him.

"You got it?" she asks a moment later.

But his heavy white tennis shoes seem stuck to the floor, and Christian takes one step for everyone else's three. He's constantly reminding himself of how differently he must move with this new style.

But he's also learning and, like most everyone here, willing to do so without embarrassment. He will come back, Christian says later, and when he goes back to Germany, he plans on taking his friends to learn, too.

As the music continues, Christian's partner keeps working with him, until finally: "He's got it," she tells their friends.

Moments later, the teens form their lines once again for one last dance.

Nisha and her partner waltz and twirl, and while they dance she doesn't worry about homework or tennis or anything outside this room.

And Ken and Sherry move through the students, standing next to them, walking them through the steps they know so well.

As they waltz, expertly or for the first time, most everyone here is smiling.

Maybe they're learning that dancing doesn't have to be fast and fervent, under dark lights at a club or the prelude to something else.

Maybe it's just dancing.

And maybe that's why they like it.

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