Fifth-grade dance

Alan Zhang, left, with Devan Muhly on his arm, and other fifth-graders at Gunpowder Elementary practice their entrance and exit in pairs for "The Fifth Grade Ballroom Stars." (Amy Davis / The Baltimore Sun / February 2, 2012)

The idea of dancing with a boy sent several fifth-grade girls at Gunpowder Elementary into a tailspin. Jen Holland even gathered 25 signatures on a petition to curtail the lessons, but ultimately she left the paper at home.

Four days into the week of lessons, the petitioners were swinging, swaying and mastering all manner of intricate steps with boys in the lead.

"It was a lot better than I thought," Jen said.

About 90 fifth graders donned their best dancing duds for a recital Friday, capping off a week of lessons in cha-cha, merengue, tango and swing at the Perry Hall school.

Since the ballroom course was introduced six years ago at two Baltimore County schools, it has caught on, said Suzanne Henneman, dance resource teacher. The county has hired additional teachers to handle requests this year from 26 elementary schools that each paid $550 for five one-hour lessons. The fifth grade's PTA Steering Committee picked up the cost at Gunpowder.

"We have found that kids just take to dancing quickly," Henneman said. "They move to the rhythm and music and really rise to the occasion."

Student Carly Lobus, who signed the petition, said she was glad it didn't work.

"I would have missed so much fun," she said. "I am even teaching my mom these dances. She didn't know how to do them."

Samantha Jones added: "I thought it would be too weird being so close to boys. But it's really fun and I can't wait to show off for my family."

Ballroom dancing has grown in popularity and has become more mainstream, Henneman said. Popular TV shows such as "Dancing with the Stars" appeal to the entire family and are spurring interest, she said.

The elementary school classes are designed to teach balance, endurance, etiquette, vocabulary, history, geography and culture along with fancy footwork, said Henneman, who attended five recitals Friday.

"This is fun learning and exercise without iPods and boom boxes," said Caitlin Foley, who taught the one-hour sessions at three schools last week in elegant heels with suede soles to prevent slipping. "They also learn to respect one another."

The children line up in pairs in their classrooms and walk into the gym, ladies on the arms of gentlemen. Any fretting about partners evaporated when the students realized how quickly the pairings changed, said Cindy Forcellese, fifth-grade teacher.

"They started out shy and anxious, worried about who would be their partner and afraid to even touch fingers," Forcellese said. "But all week it got better, until Thursday they jumped right in with partners. Once the music was on, they really got into it."

Samantha Tornator had one major concern at first.

"Sweaty hands," she said, holding up her palms. "Mine and my partner's."

While she still prefers the soccer field to the dance floor, Samantha said she has discovered dancing can also be a terrific athletic experience. Classmate Erika Stiles, who studies ballet, said she has really enjoyed "dancing with others instead of by myself."

Foley put the class through several routines, starting with the tango, as she prepared them for the recital.

Ben Bellew finished his tango in a crouching stance, punctuated with what he called his vampire look. "I am expressing my emotion," he said.