“Ladies and Gentlemen, do any of you know why we’re here today?”
It’s the first day of ballroom class at Melrose Elementary. Daniel Ponickly — or Mr. Danny, as he’s known in the Conga Kids world — is standing in front of twenty-five nervous students, awaiting his answer. At Conga Kids, the first lesson of the semester is always co-taught by one Teaching Artist and one Senior Liaison — in this case, our Artistic Director, Mr. Danny.
“Why are we here? Any guesses?” he asks. A few hands raise slowly. He pauses, building anticipation.
“We are here to talk about MORTGAGE RATES! The housing market is very confusing, and it’s never too early to get you started.” He pauses again. “I’m kidding, of course. We’re here to DANCE!”
You see, if you’re a fifth-grader in Los Angeles, there are exactly THREE THINGS you know with absolute certainty:
Dancing with a member of the opposite sex is not only gross, it is probably dangerous.
All Latin music comes from Mexico.
Mr. Danny has terrible jokes.
Over the course of this initial 50-minute class — the first of our ten-week, twenty-lesson program — it is our job to correct those preconceived notions.
Except for the third one, which is, objectively, correct.
“All they need is an opportunity to shine.”
Conga Kids was co-founded in 2016 by Brad Gluckstein, Apex Realty CEO & Conga Room Founder, and Daniel Ponickly, the former Artistic Director and Creator of Ballroom Madness. In its first two years, the program reached over 9,000 students across 7 school districts, quickly establishing a reputation as Los Angeles’ premiere classroom-based dance program. Conga Kids’ mission is to provide a dynamic partner-dance program that promotes creativity, teaches critical inter-personal communication skills, and sets a foundation of respect, teamwork, confidence, and leadership.
“It means the world to them,” says Ms. Lemus, a teacher at Estrella Elementary (one of our competition-winning schools from the Spring semester).
“These kids don’t really have opportunities like this. Maybe after-school, but that’s it. And these communities — although they’re often looked at to be poor communities or violent communities — they have a lot of good in them. A lot of diamonds in the rough. All they need is an opportunity to shine.”
“And now, for our first trick…”
Believe it or not, on the path to helping those diamonds shine, the first day of class is almost always the most difficult.
This consistently happens, semester-after-semester, for one singular reason: this first lesson is when these young ladies and gentlemen must overcome their fear of making physical contact with one another. It’s nothing serious — palms touching and a hand on the shoulder blade — but in the fifth-grade, it’s enough to prompt shrieks of terror, nervous laughter, and uncontrollable blushing.
So after laying down some expectations for ballroom class (shoelaces tied, hands out of pockets, treating each other with respect), we set out towards this first hurdle, taking the students through a series of dance positions designed to smoothly transition them from anxious schoolchildren into seasoned ballroom veterans.
We begin in what we call “Flat Pancake Position,” with the gentlemen’s hands extended as an invitation, and the ladies’ hands resting respectfully on top.