PHILADELPHIA (RNS) When it comes to dancing for Pope Francis, it takes 40 to tango.
That's how many Philadelphia eighth-graders, dressed in bold red and blue costumes, danced the Argentine national dance on one of several stages as part of the Festival of Families on Saturday (Sept. 26).
The dancers were from the Gesu School, a Jesuit elementary and middle school that serves some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.
Their Latin flourishes were broadcast live on 40 Jumbotrons set up around and beyond Logan Square, a center point of the city that hosted a large party to conclude the World Meeting of Families, a four-day Catholic conference to which Francis, the former cardinal from Argentina, was invited.
About 100,000 people saw the dancers, though the pope was not among them.
Asked how it felt to perform, Eva Webb, an eighth-grader, shrieked and threw her hands in the air.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was so exciting, and I’m so happy.”
Webb said the group originally practiced in the school’s gymnasium, which is much larger than the stage at Logan Square.
“It was a lot harder to do it in the small space, but we did and it was incredible,” Webb said.
Dawn Brown, the mother of one of the dancers, said the program helped her son, Sheldon Bullock, break out of his shyness.
“It’s encouraging to watch them blossom and become these outgoing kids,” Brown said.
The students learned to dance as part of a program called “Dancing With the Students.” Founded in 2005 by Sue Martinelli Shea, a former teacher at Gesu, the program now serves underprivileged students in 14 Philadelphia schools, including Catholic, Episcopal, charter and mission schools.
Shea said she hopes the experience will give the students lasting happy memories.
“Some of their lives are very difficult,” she said. “I want them to feel special and I want them to feel talented -- they are all those things.”
About one in three of Gesu’s 450 students come from families living below the poverty line. For low-income and at-risk students, developing interests and hobbies is vital to keeping them in school, said Bryan Carter, the school's president.
Every day for 10 weeks, the students work with professional dance instructors to learn the waltz, swing, tango and merengue.
Carter said the program teaches much more than the steps.
“You learn teamwork and you learn how to respect a young lady,” he said. “You learn grit because it’s not an easy thing to do.”
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