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For Hillsborough students, Patel Conservatory dance outreach program makes all the difference

TAMPA

Young ladies have been jumping into young men's arms for years.

And for years, the Patel Conservatory at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center has been sending dance instructors like Susan Downey into the public schools in hopes of making the arts matter to a new generation.

Still, there's always a moment in the dance — the girl leaps, the boy braces — when you're not sure if it's going to work out.

At a recent rehearsal at Philip Shore Elementary Magnet School, Downey urged a group of fifth-graders to commit themselves.

"You fight it, you get dropped," she told the girls after one shaky jump. "It's all about trust."

The class has been rehearsing for weeks to prepare for a performance Thursday at the conservatory's TECO Theater. They'll be doing real partner dances for the Broadway Outreach Project, along with students from Muller Elementary and Walton Academy for the Performing Arts.

Several large-scale studies have shown that students involved in the arts tend to get better grades and higher test scores, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

But the Philip Shore students say it's tougher than it looks.

"I got dropped like seven times," marveled Olivia Marrero, 9. "I've got bruises and stuff. I've learned to fall so I don't hurt myself so much."

Some of the boys said they're still aiming for careers in pro football. But for others, the dance class has opened up new possibilities.

Dontae Stewart, 10, said he could imagine becoming a professional dancer.

"The part I like most is the pickup," he said. "When you pick up your partner and spin around and hold it. It just tells me that I'm strong."

Brains get a workout, too. Bryant Jackson, 11, said dancing has helped him to focus on his schoolwork. Students have to miss some of their regular classes to attend practice, so they have to get more efficient, he said.

"I think they have really embraced that responsibility," said teacher Emily Marrero. "They're proud of it."

Wendy Leigh, vice president of education at the conservatory, said the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center has transformed plenty of lives during its 22 years of outreach to the public schools.

But in tight times, economic backers are asking tougher questions about how the arts help kids. So this year, the conservatory will try to quantify the joy, the improvement in grades, the lives turned around.

"They say, 'Show me, how many?' " Leigh said. "We're actually going to start measuring that this year."

Downey was lavish with her praise at the rehearsal, but she didn't cut her dancers any breaks. She talked to them like adults, pointing out rough spots in the choreography and telling them to think for themselves.

"Wait for the music change, right?" she instructed during one of those hard parts. "Use your ears, not your count, on this."

Then it was time for the final leap of the day.

"Okay, give me 10," she shouted, as half a dozen girls made their jump. "Hold it!"

Bryant Jackson's 11-year-old knees quivered for a moment under the weight of his taller partner, 10-year-old Kristin Fair.

But the knees held solid.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

For Hillsborough students, Patel Conservatory dance outreach program makes all the difference 10/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 1:12am]
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