Music, joy, and community love at the Allentown School District Latin Dance competition
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Hundreds of people packed in the William Allen High School auditorium Wednesday, as students donned shiny red salsa dresses and white shirts with red bow-ties.
- The Allentown School District Foundation celebrated its 10th annual Latin dance competition on Wednesday
- Hundreds filled the room, applause and cheers could be heard from outside
- The event is mainly for fun, but serves another purpose: to help students feel a sense of belonging, challenge, and hopefully — to motivate them to stay in school
There were two types of students there: Those grinning ear-to-ear the whole time, and those who looked shy. All still clearly were having fun.
It was Allentown School District Foundation's 10th annual Latin dance competition.
The event is mainly for fun, but serves another purpose: to help students feel a sense of belonging, challenge, and hopefully — to motivate them to stay in school.
The same two songs played, essentially on a loop, the entire night: one Meringue, one Salsa. That was to level the playing field for the dance teams facing off against each other.
The crowd roared with cheers and applause after every performance — students even cheered for their rival schools and patted them on the back or hugged them as they descended from the stage.
Parents formed a sea of lit-up Smartphones in the crowd, taking shaky videos and cheering on their kids and kids’ friends.
One of the students on the stage was Ayrriela Spann-Rodriguez. Positioned front and center, she danced smiling in an authentic, calm way.
She had practiced hard for this.
“We worked very hard,” Ayrriela said. “It took a lot of dedication.”
She stood with her parents, who had come to the event for several years to support her.
“I’m very proud,” her mother, Graciella Rodriguez, said. “She’s getting better and better, but you know, she’s been doing this for years, so I’m not surprised. She’s definitely a future star right here, hopefully. But she loves it, so I told her just have fun.”
Standing nearby, appearing careful not to interrupt, Ayrriela’s instructor, Eric Bass went into the huddle and gave Ayrriela a high five, then shook hands with her parents, showing a bright smile.
“She was awesome,” he said.
Ayrriela smiled in a way that expressed pure joy, and her parents did the same, peeking over at her as Bass addressed them.
“She has a great attitude, and we put her right in the front," he said. "She is so outstanding. Really great attitude, outstanding. That’s it.”
As the intermission wrapped up, Ayrriela’s parents gave her a final hug, and sent her back to sit with her friends.
Ayrriela’s team ended up winning first place, and she received a medal for her individual performance.
When her team posed for a photo on the stage, holding a giant trophy, her parents rushed to the front of the auditorium to snap a photo. Her father, Ace, snapped a number of photos in rapid succession on his phone. There was no way he was taking any chances of losing the moment.
Each school’s dance team had practiced since September, putting in hours every week after school.
Irene Blough, the teacher who started the program a decade ago, no longer teaches in the district. But she does it out of love. This year, she was its master of ceremonies.
“It's the happiest event of the year, to see these kids shining like this,” Blough said.
During the performances, she stood at a podium with the school’s yellow canary mascot on it, subtly dancing and shaking her hips. At certain points, she appeared to intentionally tone down her dancing — it wasn't clear if her dancing was conscious, or because she couldn’t help but move to the beat.
“To know that their families are seeing them look so amazing, it's so special,” Blough said. “I'm proud.”
Throughout the competition, Blough delivered not just announcements about which team was next or when it was time for intermission, but also messages of support and congratulation.
“Right now, I want to make a comment about the students," she said from the podium. "They’re all, of course, amazing, but a special note to the students who are up here dancing without a partner: how brave they are."
The whole room erupted in roaring cheers and applause. One kid in a seat near the front even stood up, clapped in the air, and looked back for someone he knew danced alone, making sure to make eye contact.
“The students who danced alone, none of them did it by choice,” she said. “The groups didn’t start this small. The groups started off, sometimes 25 in each school, and kids will just stop for whatever reason. Sometimes because it’s really hard, or whatever the reason."
“I’m just amazed by the kids who love to dance, they can get up there and do it."
A few of the reasons for the attrition, according to Blough:
“It’s all kinds of stuff — there’s drama, it’s too hard. ... sometimes it’s hard for people to get picked up from their homes and stuff.”
Throughout the competition, Blough also delivered Spanish Language translations on the microphone for those in the majority-Hispanic crowd.
Blough didn’t have a bilingual version of everything, but, another organizer said, she was strategic with her choices. The phrases she decided to translate were all something to the effect of “We love your children,” “We are so proud of your children,” or ”They are so lucky to have supportive parents like you.”
Lessons from Latin dance
Julie Ambrose, executive director of Allentown School District Foundation, said there was much more than Meringue and Salsa to be learned at the competition.
“There’s so many committed, loving adults in this district. The majority of the ones that are here – they could teach anywhere – but they’re here because they want to teach these kids."Julie Ambrose, Allentown School District Foundation Executive Director
“All of these events have some sort of built-in lesson,” Ambrose said. “For this one, it’s having these kids see high school, be around here, and understand that this is the next step.”
That, Ambrose said, means taking the kids, who are mostly in middle school, to let them see and be in a high school, letting them absorb the fun and wonder of it, and trying to influence them to stay in school.
According to the state Department of Education, Allentown School District's graduation rate is lower than the state average. It’s 80.3 percent in Allentown, and 87.4 in the rest of Pennsylvania.
Ambrose said her office doesn’t keep statistics on whether the Latin dance program affects graduation rates, but it is “certainly their hope.”
“There’s so many committed, loving adults in this district,” Ambrose said. “The majority of the ones that are here, they could teach anywhere. But they’re here because they want to teach these kids.”