Fourth-graders are steppin' out

Sunday, May 19, 2002

WEST CAPE MAY, N.J. -- Ten-year-old Nathan Langston puts his right foot forward, eyes down, and makes his way across the floor like a man headed to the electric chair.

Ten-year-old Emily Whissell is waiting for him.

It's time to waltz at West Cape May Elementary School, and Nathan is in no rush to start.

"C'mon guys, don't go over there mumbling, with fumbly hands," instructor Tom Cupp calls out. "Act like she's got your favorite candy!"

So, Nathan walks up to Emily and extends his right hand, his eyes still focused squarely on the hardwood floor.

"Hello, my name is Nathan. Would you like to have this dance?" he says. She nods. Then, their hands meet and he backs up, step by step, until they get to their starting spot.

Cupp hits the play button on a beat box perched on the lip of the stage and Steve Tyrell's rendition of "It Had To Be You" starts to play.

Learning to foxtrot

Emily and Nathan waltz, keeping time ... 1-2-3 ... to the music ... 1-2-3 ... while Cupp shouts encouragement.

"Ladies, I want you to keep your hand in a nice, strong cup. Guys, just let her revolve around until she comes back to you," he says.

This is not easy.

To the seven boys and three girls in Amy Stoner's fourth grade class, almost anything else would be preferable. Who ever heard of ballroom dancing class in elementary school? And who would think it's a good idea?

Cupp and Principal William Donato do. The Alliance for Arts Education-New Jersey provided an $800 mini-grant to have the former ballroom dancing champion give eight weeks of instruction to the class.

The idea is to teach cooperation and dance skills, but also to broaden the children's perspective by teaching them about the cultural origins of various dances.

No one here expects Nathan and Emily to become Fred and Ginger. But school officials believe their young dancers can make giant steps -- even if they don't learn any in particular.

"It's a confidence builder, and it builds self-esteem, too," Donato said. "They learn they can do something. And as they realize they have abilities they didn't know about, that will spill over into other areas."

It was a tough sell, to be sure.

That much was evident the first week, when Cupp first told them to hold hands.

"One girl just couldn't do it," he said. "She looks at her partner and goes, 'He has a wart on his hand! Ewww!' and they all fall down laughing. So now, I bring Band-Aids. Just in case."

Building confidence

Every Thursday at 9 a.m., the fourth-graders pile into the gym for their 55-minute session, dressed casually in blue jeans, athletic shoes and sweatshirts.

Cupp, a former Haddonfield High School football player, knows the subject matter like the back of his Cuban heels. He won two U.S. Grand National Ballroom Dance titles in the early 1980s with partner Darlene LaPreste and now runs Fine Life Presentations, a nonprofit local theater company.

But he keeps the class light, starting each session with a brief refresher about the steps and information covered previously.

Cupp knows of no other school in New Jersey that offers ballroom dance instruction. But he would like to see it take hold.

"It's great for social skills, and it's a pro-active introduction to cultural diversity. It's teamwork, it's trust, it's kindness. You're not out there trying to outdance your partner," he said.

The children step out onto the floor, lining up along the lane of the basketball court.

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