Danceworks instructors have helped more than 25,000 students find their footing through the organization’s Mad Hot program.

Danceworks “teaching artist” Julia Richter ad-libs a dab into one of the tap numbers she’s teaching fourth-graders at the Milwaukee French Immersion School. The kids cheer as she hits it. 

About 1,400 pupils from 39 Milwaukee-area schools participate in Mad Hot each semester. Classes of up to 36 students meet with a paid teaching artist twice a week for 60-minute sessions, built into their daily curricula.

After 11 weeks, Richter’s classes will have memorized three dance numbers – two tap and one hip-hop – which will be performed at the Danceworks Mad Hot Competition on Jan. 24 in the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. Admission is free.

Despite her love of dance, Richter – who has been a Mad Hot teaching artist for 10 years – believes that the lessons in footwork and technique come secondary to the true purpose of the program.

“These kids come from different racial, social, economic backgrounds. None of that matters when they are dancing,” Richter says.

Photo by Jeff Zmania

Photo by Jeff Zmania

Richter leads two classes of 30-plus students each at MFIS every Monday and Friday. The fall semester targets fourth- and fifth-graders. In the spring, fifth- and sixth-graders learn more challenging ballroom numbers.

To make it more democratic, the classroom teachers are required to learn the dances alongside their students. For the kids, watching their teachers fumble through the same moves can be a confidence boost. “It teaches them that it’s OK to take risks,” says Carly Hertel, the principal at St. Martini Lutheran School, which is now in its second year as a partner in the Mad Hot program. “None of them have experience in tap or hip-hop. … They’re all learning something new.”

Each semester, some 1,400 Milwaukee-area students participate in Danceworks’ Mad Hot program. 
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“At first I was terrified,” admits Amanda Stewart, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Martini. “I was starting from square one with them.”

During practices, Richter provides nonstop encouragement to her students, intertwined with lessons on respect that are so often overlooked in classrooms and at home.

Photo by Jeff Zmania

MFIS teacher Cyrille Durand Husting says her fourth-graders “are still in the age of ‘girls can’t touch boys.’” Dancing teaches them to open up to, and interact with, students they might otherwise avoid.

“Boys and girls don’t get along. At the carpet in our classroom, girls don’t want to sit by the boys,” says Jade Marker, a curly-haired fourth-grader. “Now we all dance together.”

Before even making physical contact during the partner dances, the boys must first offer their hands, which the girls must accept. Learning “respectful touching” is a key part of Richter’s strategy.

“It’s teamwork,” she says. “It’s not just learning steps. You can go to a studio for that.”

Richter says that two students cried on the first day of class, nervous about trying something new and having to interact with boys, or girls. Six weeks later, they were rotating partners, spinning each other around with glee while The Jackson 5’s “Rockin’ Robin” played off of Richter’s cellphone.

Sure, their sense of rhythm could use some work, but that clearly isn’t the point here.

“We don’t ask for perfection,” Richter tells her students outright. “We just ask for high energy levels.”

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“Dance Partners” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 31.

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