Ballroom dancing helps put middle schoolers 'over the top'

Date: 6/29/2009

The sounds of music from the '60s, like "Baby Love" and "Please Mr. Postman," could be heard from Symphony Hall stage on June 6 when eight Springfield elementary schools competed in the fourth annual Citywide Ballroom Dance Competition. The grand finale had over 120 fifth graders dancing the swing, cha cha, fox trot, waltz, merengue, mambo and tango. All the dancers were finalists in "Over the Top: The Ballroom Dance Project."

Husband and wife team George and Allyson Gouzounis started the program in 2005 after seeing the movie "Mad Hot Ballroom." They had already had the idea for such a program, but after seeing the movie they knew they could do it.

The original four schools involved have grown to eight, with more on a waiting list. Each October the couple teaches all the fifth graders in the participating schools; after the third lesson, the children can choose to continue or not. In January each school has a dance off to select the 16 finalists who will represent their school at Symphony Hall. The couple has taught over 3,500 children ballroom dancing.

George and Allyson stress that ballroom dancing has provided opportunities for children to shine in areas outside of their academic work. The dancing has also promoted cooperation, a sense of responsibility and respect between partners. The children's confidence has been enhanced and teachers report that the dancers have become risk-takers in their classroom as well.

At the end of the 2009 show, Daniel B. Brunton School was awarded the championship - for the third time. Rebecca Johnson and Zanetti schools tied for second place. Zanetti's cha cha to the tune of "YMCA" by the Village People was danced with basketballs and won the Best School Routine. The other participation schools were Alice Beal, Mary Dryden, Kensington Avenue, Sumner Avenue and Warner.

In addition to working in the schools, George and Allyson also have an alumni group, the Over the Top Dancers, who perform for hospitals, nursing homes, at luncheons and for many other events. A documentary about the program, "Step by Step: Saving the Arts," has been aired repeatedly on public television. This summer Over the Top and Community Music School will join forces to offer ballroom dance lessons to the public; if interested, call 433-5036 for more details.