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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”