Dance class keeps phys-ed students on their toes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

STUDENT Aretha McDonald goes through her dance steps, playing her flirtatious role to instructor-dancer Kevin Kelly. Down below, Jonathan Hollander, the Battery Dance Company's artistic director, watches intently.

``Aretha,'' he calls. ``When you do this'' - he leans back and waves his arms mimicking her moves - ``don't cover your face!... Good. Very good.''

What looks like a scene from ``Fame'' or ``A Chorus Line'' is simply a dance rehearsal in a regular public high school in a blue-collar Queens neighborhood.

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William Cullen Bryant High School's dance program is offered as a physical-education credit. And though the students on stage obviously enjoy what they are doing, when asked about future plans, most mention college, the military, or whatever job they can get - not Broadway.

At a time when many city schools are being hit with a high dropout rate, rampant drug abuse, and teen pregnancies, programs like Bryant's stand out. Here, students develop the confidence that they can perform professionally.

Defying stereotypes and a clique atmosphere, boys and girls, athletes and punks, and a rainbow of students whose backgrounds are Hispanic, Asian, African, Greek, and Yugoslav, eagerly participate.

At Bryant, dance is special. To be selected for the class taught by physical-education instructor Mary Ann Sperazza has the cachet of making a sports team. In fact, the class includes both gymnasts and football players.

And to perform in the spring program, which this year features guest performances by two members of the Battery Dance Company, is somewhat akin to becoming a celebrity. A lot of credit for this - and for enticing streetwise New York students to remain in school with passing grades - goes to Mrs. Sperazza.

``It's great,'' says Luis Villafuerte, a senior who has a leading role in the spring program. ``There's no way of explaining it - it's like a family.''

He points out that Sperazza has been out of the classroom since early March, when she was injured working out with the students. But that doesn't mean she's left her students.

``She's the greatest,'' says Luis. ``Any other teacher would use the time to rest. She calls up at 7 a.m. to make sure you're going to school.''

Natasha Pendjer is a pony-tailed senior who also has a part in the spring program.

``She called me up at 11 p.m. to ask why I wasn't in bed,'' Natasha laughs. ``She's more than a teacher - she's a friend.''

``She will not let us fail out,'' says Sandra Escamilla.

Although Mr. Hollander credits her with the program's success, Sperazza, who has taught at the school for 17 years, is more modest. She says interest in a citywide dance showcase in the early 1970s is what initially sparked interest among students. Although it was discontinued during budget cuts of the late '70s, she continued dance classes as a physical-education credit. With the coaches' help, she got boys in the program.

``It's really bloomed in the last three years,'' says Sperazza, who points to the beneficial effects of several recently released movies about dancing. ``It became a rage. And I try not to turn any kid away.''

She laughs when asked about calling students in the morning and at night, but then turns serious. The students, she says, need the personal contact. And since she has not been at the school for several months - where students would often pop in to talk, get dancing pointers, or help her with clerical work - she tries to keep up with them by phone.

``I make eight to 10 calls a night,'' Sperazza says. ``[The dance program] is what keeps some of them in school. ... It teaches them responsibility and commitment. And it really improves their self-image.''

The spring program always draws standing-room crowds, including many area parents and residents who have never been into Manhattan to see a ballet or modern dance. They come to see a professional performance, not merely a recital by students, says Sperazza. And that's what she expects from her students.

This year's spring program includes a ballet of Scaramouche, the story of the old comic Italian braggart. It was choreographed originally for Battery by Hollander, who co-founded the touring company with his wife.

Hollander's involvement with Bryant is part of New York City's Join-a-School program, in which corporations `adopt' schools to stimulate more involvement between the corporate and education community. Underwritten by Equitable Financial Companies, Hollander's arrangement with Bryant includes class instruction by several of the Battery dancers.

Having Battery available for special classes has been a gift to Sperazza and her students. Most of the boys at Bryant had never had a male dancer teach them before. There are different techniques they can pick up, says Sperazza. And it also allows the students a chance to do some more advanced dancing, such as partnering in Scaramouche.

``Usually dance is the lowest of priorities in schools,'' says Hollander. ``Here dance has the prestige of sports. ... There are an equal number of boys and girls. There's a freshness, a healthiness - no squeamishness that this is dance.''

That there could be doesn't even seem to occur to these students. Joey Ferrer, a strapping senior who plans to join the military and then go to college on a deferred entry plan, was asked if he ever gets - ah - grief for his role in the ballet production.

``No,'' he says, referring to homework and baseball. The question of whether dance is ``cool'' for guys doesn't even register.

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