When Sade's Smooth Operator came on, the dance teacher clenched his teeth into a grin, pointed both fingers to his cheeks and instructed his class to follow suit. It was, after all, the ultimate job skill.
"Gentlemen, do box steps and underarm turns as you wish," instructed Tom Stango. "5, 6, 5, 6, here we go!"
Allison Fernandez shuffled her tweed ballet flats in time with her partner's feet, brown hair gathered in a slack ponytail. She had worked all day at her internship, gone to economics class at the University of South Florida and was nervous about a final exam that night. And between it all, she was learning how to ballroom dance.
It was fun, yes, but it was more than that. She hoped this might help her get to Wall Street.
• • •
The 40 students sequestered in a USF dance studio Tuesday were technically in a professional development class. But they carried no books or papers, only themselves in pressed khakis and polos, heels and demure mall dresses.
They were studying business, all the management skills and investment practices. But they were studying something less tangible, too, a posture, a panache.
"It's honestly all about introducing them to that country club culture, what the silver spooners or sorority or fraternity kids might be exposed to growing up," said J.R. Haworth, coordinator of USF's Corporate Mentor Program. "They have to understand networking events, how to work a room."
Nine hundred students in USF's College of Business are first-generation degree-seekers. The Corporate Mentor Program helps them get a leg up. Last year, 68 percent got internships.
Some students in the dance class Tuesday were already in the program. Others were hoping to make an impression and land a spot for the upcoming year. It is highly competitive, with interviews, community service and grade requirements. More than 100 students are chosen and paired with mentors from companies like Raymond James, Nielsen, Target and Jabil Circuit. They learn to live in their world.
"If you're not sweating, you're not growing," Haworth said. "I put them in very awkward situations and they gain a lot in their presence and understanding of how the professional world works."
They go to formal dinners and practice delivering concise business pitches in an elevator. They learn etiquette, to sit up straight and make conversation with strangers, take their hands out of their pockets, make eye contact and smile.
They dance. Quick-quick-slow, shoulders broad, always moving to the left and never breaking stride.
• • •
Fernandez came into this raw.
"I didn't know there was a difference between the forks," said Fernandez, 22.
Her parents came to New York from Ecuador. Her father worked in construction stores, then as a contractor, then as a plumber. Her mother raised the kids. They lived in a tiny Queens apartment.
Her parents scraped together cash to take the kids on city adventures most weekends, to sit at the South Street Seaport, order snacks and stare at the Statue of Liberty.
After the family moved to Florida and Fernandez enrolled at USF to study architecture, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The next year, she said, her father fell off a roof and couldn't work.
Fernandez went home to Naples every weekend to care for her parents. She changed her major to finance, something that cost less in materials and time. She saw a flier for the Corporate Mentor Program.
She applied and was paired with a mentor from T. Rowe Price, where she's now an intern and hopes to work until she ventures back to New York.
Her mother works as a secretary and is recovering from cancer. Her father works whenever there are jobs he can handle.
Fernandez wants to pay their bills and send them on vacations to Ecuador.
"I'll do everything for them when I get out," she said. "I don't want them to work anymore."
• • •
After foxtrot, rumba and salsa, it was time for the grand finale, the dance to impress anyone, anywhere.
"If you think Cinderella, if you think dancing with your Prince Charming, this is the one that I want you to learn," Stango said. "When we do the waltz, there's no hips. … You float."
Stango taught them to clap for the band and reminded them that when couples collide on the dance floor, both parties apologize.
He invited the students to attend a dance in May, with real dancers at a real ballroom. It was not for credit. It was not required. It was the real thing.
"How many of you think this is something you'd be interested in doing?" Stango said.
Dozens of students let their hands creep into the air. Fernandez did, too.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.