What the Merengue Can Teach Us (About What We Think We Already Know)

(All smiles at 109th St. Elementary)

(All smiles at 109th St. Elementary)

“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:

  1. Dancing with a member of the opposite sex is not only gross, it is probably dangerous.

  2. All Latin music comes from Mexico.

  3. 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.

(Flat Pancake Position, courtesy of Eastman Elementary)

(Flat Pancake Position, courtesy of Eastman Elementary)

After a little practice, we move the arms into “COOKED Pancake Position,” with hands and elbows touching.

(Ms. Kirsten demonstrates a proper Cooked Pancake Position)

(Ms. Kirsten demonstrates a proper Cooked Pancake Position)

From here, it’s a straight shot into our traditional “Ballroom Position” -- feet together and pointed toward your partner, hands and elbows touching, standing up straight, and “chicken wings crisp.”

(Ballroom Position — look at that technique!)

(Ballroom Position — look at that technique!)

Now that we’ve reached ballroom position, it’s time for some music. We turn on Loco de Amor by Grupo Mania (obviously).

“Ladies and gentlemen,” asks Mr. Danny, “who has heard this type of music before?” Hands shoot up. “What is it?”

“Salsa!” “Bachata!” “Cumbia!”

All great guesses, all incorrecto. The first student who correctly identifies it as “Merengue” gets a high five.

“And can anyone tell me what country the Merengue comes from?”

“MEXICO!” “Cuba!” “Um…Russia?”

Again, solid guesses, but not quite on-target. We lead the students on a verbal tour of the Caribbean, ending with our Merengue country-of-origin, The Dominican Republic. All of the sudden, twenty-five kids tell us that this was the next thing they were going to guess.

“Why do we dance?”

Just like that, it’s time to wrap up our first lesson; time flies when you’re corralling fifth-graders.

By this point, these young ladies and gentlemen are not only able to make physical contact without groaning, they’re absolute pros. They’ve danced with several partners in full ballroom position, AND, as a bonus, have learned how to execute a proper “job interview handshake.” And thanks to the Merengue, their view of dance, culture, and geography has expanded as well. Their opinion of Mr. Danny’s jokes, however, remains the same.

“Why do ladies always begin with the right foot?” He pauses. Anticipation. He smiles. “Because the ladies are always right.”

And in true Mr. Danny fashion, he finds time to sneak in one final, beautiful lesson.

“Ladies and gentlemen...why do you think you’re taking dance class?” Hands go up, and he calls on them one-after-another. “To build confidence.” “To work better with others.” “So that we can win a trophy!”

“Well,” he says, “Just because you learn MATH does not mean you are going to grow up to be a mathematician. Just because you learn to WRITE does not mean you will necessarily grow up to be a writer. And just because you learn to DANCE doesn’t mean you have to grow up to become a dancer. But all of these things combined make you a stronger, better, more well-rounded person who has more options in life.”

At Conga Kids, there’s one thing we know for certain: empowering every student with the opportunity to explore the arts is the fastest, most effective way to expand their world-view. And when we, as a community, as a society, make that a priority — beautiful things can happen.

Zach Davidson