Natalie El Amrani leads students in a routine during after-school rehearsal for upcoming performances of the Cultural Expressions dance team she started. The team practices in her classroom at Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg after school in January.

In St. Petersburg, teacher shares cultural expression through dance

At Melrose Elementary, teacher Natalie El Amrani adds music to learning.
Natalie El Amrani leads students in a routine during after-school rehearsal for upcoming performances of the Cultural Expressions dance team she started. The team practices in her classroom at Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg after school in January. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
At Melrose Elementary, teacher Natalie El Amrani adds music to learning.
Published Apr. 1|Updated Apr. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — During her first year teaching at Melrose Elementary, in 2019, fifth-grade teacher Natalie El Amrani decided to start a group to offer dance experience steeped in cultural appreciation for young girls.

El Amrani recalls her childhood — centered on a passion for performing on a competition dance team. Recitals were the highlight, but she knew her mother struggled to cover the costs and ensure her continued participation. She started “Cultural Expressions” to provide her students the experience without the financial strain.

“I began Cultural Expressions 100 percent free of charge to families,” El Amrani said. “I write grants and pay out of my own pocket for all costumes and experiences for the girls.”

A student at St. Petersburg's Melrose Elementary School, part of the Cultural Expressions dance team started by Natalie El Amrani, practices for upcoming performances after school.
A student at St. Petersburg's Melrose Elementary School, part of the Cultural Expressions dance team started by Natalie El Amrani, practices for upcoming performances after school. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

El Amrani, who has a Moroccan background, volunteers in Jamaican schools several times a year and enjoys sharing her experiences with her students, teaching them about the multicultural spectrum within the Black race. Many of El Amrani’s students have backgrounds in Jamaica, Haiti and throughout the Caribbean. “Many of them are second generation, so they don’t truly know their identity because many aren’t being taught at home,” El Amrani said. “In my dance group, we explore different Black cultures.” The dancing reflects the musical genres of Jamaican dancehall, Haitian kompa, salsa and merengue, Afro-beats, hip-hop and more.

Natalie El Amrani leads students in dance practice after school.
Natalie El Amrani leads students in dance practice after school. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

During after-school practice in El Amrani’s classroom, she reminds the girls about Saturday school to reinforce academics while they prepare for upcoming performances. El Amrani and team captain Za-riyah Herring, 10, take turns putting the girls through the different steps of several songs.

From left, Kamiya Cruz, 11, Neveah Troupe, 9, and Angel Earnest, 9, watch Za-riyah Herring, 10, the team captain, demonstrate one of the dances during a rehearsal of the Cultural Expressions dance team.
From left, Kamiya Cruz, 11, Neveah Troupe, 9, and Angel Earnest, 9, watch Za-riyah Herring, 10, the team captain, demonstrate one of the dances during a rehearsal of the Cultural Expressions dance team. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

El Amrani plays the music videos on YouTube, sometimes quizzing the girls on the genre of music and where it comes from. She’s direct and speaks loudly and clearly when calling out instructions. The girls hang on her every word.

Herring dances with confidence, her facial expressions a part of the performance. “I can be myself when I dance,” she said. “I dance like nobody is watching.” Other girls are shy but warm up as they watch their teacher and teammates break down the choreography. When anyone feels lost, the move is repeated until they feel good about it.

“We call each other dance sisters,” said Herring. “I love that we get to share what we like about it. We can show our feelings through the dance.”

Za-riyah Herring, 10, a fifth-grade student at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, leads her teammates on the Cultural Expressions dance team.
Za-riyah Herring, 10, a fifth-grade student at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, leads her teammates on the Cultural Expressions dance team. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Kamiya Cruz, 11, balances on the back of Angel Earnest, 9, while practicing alongside teammates Zi'yana Ingram, 10, and Za-riyah Herring, 10, during a rehearsal of the Cultural Expressions dance team at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
Kamiya Cruz, 11, balances on the back of Angel Earnest, 9, while practicing alongside teammates Zi'yana Ingram, 10, and Za-riyah Herring, 10, during a rehearsal of the Cultural Expressions dance team at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Students at Melrose Elementary School practice for upcoming performances.
Students at Melrose Elementary School practice for upcoming performances. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Before practice ends, El Amrani pulls Kimani Collins, 11, into a salsa dance. She giggles as the steps come together, establishing a rhythm. “I just love dancing,” Collins said. “She’s good at it,” El Amrani adds.

Kimani Collins, 11, laughs as she goes through the steps of a dance with her teacher, Natalie El Amrani, during a rehearsal.
Kimani Collins, 11, laughs as she goes through the steps of a dance with her teacher, Natalie El Amrani, during a rehearsal. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Neveah Troupe, 9, a fourth-grade student at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, giggles while watching her teammates on the Cultural Expressions dance team.
Neveah Troupe, 9, a fourth-grade student at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, giggles while watching her teammates on the Cultural Expressions dance team. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Cultural Expressions performed during a Black History presentation in the school cafeteria on Feb. 24, featuring choir singers and skits. Mayor Ken Welch and Leon Jackson, the last living member of the Courageous 12, were in the audience.

Zi’yana Ingram kept thinking of her teacher’s advice. “What was going through my mind was Ms. E (El Amrani) telling us to bring your all and show all your facial expressions.”

Zi'yana Ingram, 10, performs during a Black History presentation featuring the Cultural Expressions dance team at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24.
Zi'yana Ingram, 10, performs during a Black History presentation featuring the Cultural Expressions dance team at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

El Amrani sees the group as an extension of her work in the classroom. “It is a sisterhood. It is a positive, age-appropriate and uplifting safe environment, and an educational experience in which the girls learn their identity as global citizens.”

From left, Za-riyah Herring, 10, Zi'yana Ingram, 10, and Rhianna McNair, 9, perform during a Black History presentation at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
From left, Za-riyah Herring, 10, Zi'yana Ingram, 10, and Rhianna McNair, 9, perform during a Black History presentation at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
The Cultural Expressions dance team performs during a Black History presentation at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24.
The Cultural Expressions dance team performs during a Black History presentation at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
From left, Kimani Collins, 11, Isa Woodard, 11, Zi'yana Ingram,10, Za-riyah Herring, 10, and Kamiya Cruz, 11, dance during a Black History presentation at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
From left, Kimani Collins, 11, Isa Woodard, 11, Zi'yana Ingram,10, Za-riyah Herring, 10, and Kamiya Cruz, 11, dance during a Black History presentation at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
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