With the success of the celebrity driven TV show it was only a matter of time before PE classes began to feature their own version of ballroom dancing, a sort of “Dancing with the Students”. During a class in country and western line dancing, a student at Mercy Vocational High School in Philadelphia suggested a different type of dance to health and physical education teacher Bernadette Campoli..
He wanted to go ballroom.
Turns out the idea didn’t come from the popular television show. 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?
“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.”
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