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Cockeysville students step lively as youth ambassadors of dance

Early every Wednesday morning, at about 7 a.m., when many people are simply struggling to push off to school or work, students and teachers at Cockeysville Middle School are whirling around a dance floor in the school, sharing a love of dance in a unique program at the school.

It was several years ago that the Cockeysville Middle School Dance Club was formed, after an invitation from Bob Russell, physical education teacher at the school, to Suzanne Henneman, director of dance for Baltimore County Public Schools, to visit CMS during one of his dance classes.

Henneman said she had no idea that she would see more than 100 students performing the 6-minute version of "Thriller," a display that she said showed her the students' strong interest in dance.

Later, the middle-school students performed "Thriller" at the Maryland Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance convention in 2009, and in fall 2010, the group performed a swing dance demonstration.

The activity was so well received that the students were asked back again to present at the 2011 convention this past fall. Thirty students made the trip and entertained convention goers with their dance skills in the hallway even before their session began.

Today, Cockeysville Middle School Dance Club has more than 100 members, with 78 members showing up each Wednesday morning — mostly eighth-graders, but some sixth- and seventh-grade students as well.

Those involved participate for a number of reasons. Claire Rainville, 13, is trained in ballet, jazz, and modern Broadway dance, and has been dancing since she was 2. She said the club was another way to get more dancing in, even in styles like ballroom, which she had never studied before.

For two of the boys involved, Matthew Nauman, 13, and Robby Kneavel-Foster, 15, participation has a dual motivation.

Both are athletes — Robby swims and plays lacrosse, soccer and basketball while Matthew swims and plays soccer, basketball and baseball. They joined because dancing helped their footwork, they said — and because Claire told them to.

"It was all her," Robby said. "She got the whole thing going."

Claire said she wrote the club's schedule in all of her friends' planners, and their participation — along with that of others — has opened doors to friendships across the school.

Marisa Clair, 13, said she was never much of a dancer, but dancing "kind of opens you up," allowing her to become friends with people she'd never met before, and also learn something new.

"At first, it was really hard," she said," but once you just relax, it's really easy."

Though the eighth-graders will move on next year — Claire to study dance at the Carver Center for the Arts — the effects of their year spent in the club appear to be permanent.

"I'll dance as long as I can here," Robby said Monday, just before revealing to his friends that he had signed up for ballroom dance classes outside of school.

Their dancing hasn't just been limited to early-morning sessions at school, however. The club has also taken students outside of the school to perform what they learn, experiences that members raved about.

The club has attended sessions of the local Friday Night Swing Dance Club. The students don't meet the 16-year-old age requirement, but attend under the special permission of Chuck Alexander, owner of the club.

Jeannette McGowan, a patron of the club, was so intrigued by the ability of the middle school students that she spearheaded a joint venture into middle-school students teaching other middle- schoolers how to swing dance.

In fall 2011, the "Red Hot Swing Fling" was held at The Gilman School's middle school gymnasium with Russell, Henneman and 68 Cockeysville club students instructing 150 eighth-grade boys and girls from Gilman and Roland Park Country School.

These days, students are learning dances such as the tango, cha-cha and soon, the waltz.

Mark Heath, a math teacher at Cockeysville Middle School, helps teach social dances. Mark's interest in dance was sparked by Carolyn Walter, a retired educator and dance teacher from Towson University. It was at a class taught by Carolyn that Mark met his wife, Marie.

Russell is in his fourth year at Cockeysville Middle School and works in the physical education department. He is the eighth-grade basketball coach and also is the coach of the school's co-ed tennis team. His said his interest in dance stems from his wife, Pam, his daughters, Jonnie and Alyssa, and Carolyn Water — who also taught him dance at Towson University.

Now, he's passing that knowledge along to his students.

"Mr. Russell's a really good teacher," Robby said.

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