Program gets students into the swing of ballroom

Eighth graders Kahree Caulk (left) and Kahimiyah Pierce during a Dancing with the Students practice at Drexel Neumann Academy in Chester. The ballroom dancing program has spread to 11 schools.
Eighth graders Kahree Caulk (left) and Kahimiyah Pierce during a Dancing with the Students practice at Drexel Neumann Academy in Chester. The ballroom dancing program has spread to 11 schools. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 06, 2014

Health and physical education teacher Bernadette Campoli was teaching country and western line dancing at Mercy Vocational High School in Philadelphia when a student suggested a different kind of dance.

He wanted to go ballroom.

 Turns out the idea didn't come from any Monday-night TV show featuring Paso Dobles from the D-list. Many of Campoli's students had waltzed and merengued before - at their middle school.

They had participated in Dancing with the Students, a program that brings ballroom dancing to schools in Philadelphia and Chester. Campoli decided to bring the dance program to Mercy Vocational.

The initiative aims to boost self-esteem, instill confidence and respectful behavior, and offer a few lessons in the social graces - all through a rock-step and an eight-count.

"You can bring a million speakers in here," said Sister Maggie Gannon, president of Drexel Neumann Academy in Chester - which also offers the program - but there is a hands-on lesson in "a girl walking in on a boy's arm."

The students learn the waltz, swing, merengue, and tango during two 10-week sessions in spring and fall.

The program started around the same time as Dancing with the Stars, but founder Susan Martinelli Shea says she began working on the idea before the television show's debut.

A former special-education teacher from Berwyn, she founded the program after her son, Steven, suffered a stunning loss.

His 19-year-old Fairfield University roommate, Mark Fisher, was shot five times and killed in a highly publicized murder in Brooklyn. Fisher's body was found wrapped in a yellow blanket after he had been out drinking with friends.

Steven "loved him like a brother, and it was life-changing for all of us," said Shea, who has taught in the Lower Merion and Tredyffrin/Easttown School Districts.

Steven Shea wound up choosing a career in social work. Shea, who also spent time reflecting after Fisher's death, decided she, too, wanted to do something that felt more meaningful.

She began volunteering at Gesu School, an independent Catholic School in Philadelphia, where she became chair of the education committee and fund-raiser for the school.

When she heard about a successful ballroom dancing program in the New York City schools that taught students valuable lessons outside dance, she thought she would like to start something similar in Philadelphia?

One problem.

"I knew nothing about ballroom dancing," said Shea, 59. So she walked into an Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Paoli, approached an instructor, and said, "I have an idea."

That instructor was Samantha Bellomo. She loved the idea. Shea, along with Bellomo, now resident director at People's Light & Theatre Company, launched the Dancing with the Students nonprofit group and the program at Gesu School in 2005.

Dancing with the Students has since spread to 11 schools, and 250 students participate.

"I like it because it's elegant," said Tiara Robinson-Makidi, 15, of Mercy Vocational. "I grew up watching princess movies, and that's what they always dance."

'Change your life'

At Drexel Neumann Academy in Chester, Karina Balfour of Philadelphia and and Nadira Beard of Chester teach seventh and eighth graders.

On Wednesday, they prepared for a special performance at the 76ers game on April 14, when the students are scheduled to dance before the opening tip-off.

The eighth graders will tango to the song "Radioactive," merengue to "Party Rock Anthem," and swing dance to "Happy."

Shea says she has seen the program become a refuge for several students who have suffered tragedy outside school.

"An arts program can change your life," said Beard, 35. "I'm from Chester. I was [a student] at Smedley Middle school when I was picked for a program at People's Light & Theatre Company."

Beard is now an instructor at the company, and she teaches acting and playwriting.

At Drexel Neumann, she was trying to help 14 students nail the transition from tango to swing.

It was rough.

Kellie Harris, 14, and her partner, Nicholas Williams, 13, practiced again - and again.

Eventually, the group got better.

"I really didn't want to do it," Nicholas said of the ballroom dancing. "I didn't feel open to people like that."

In ballroom, he said, he had learned not to shut himself away from others.

A few moments later, he twirled Kellie across the floor.



Schools feature Dancing with the Students classes


Students participate


Dances taught: waltz, swing, merengue, and tango


Weeks in each of the spring and fall sessions


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