There are harder steps to learn, but to a dancer of a certain age, this first one feels like a giant leap. "I just closed my eyes and went to a happy place," said Javonte Neals, who is 11 and in the fifth grade at East Elementary in Long Beach.
This was Sunday afternoon at Sachem High School North, where dancers from nine elementary and middle schools participating in a nationwide program called Dancing Classrooms gathered to compete in merengue, fox-trot, rumba, tango and swing.
Willow Road Elementary (Valley Stream) and West Elementary (Long Beach) took bronze; East Elementary and Frank P. Long Intermediate (Bellport), silver; Lynwood Elementary (Farmingville) and Sts. Philip and James School (St. James), gold. For a good chunk of the 20th century, young Americans learned these dances from their peers or in school.
When they were eclipsed by disco and hip-hop, something worthwhile was lost, said professional dancer and dance teacher Rodney Lopez, who emceed Sunday's competition. Lopez appeared in the 2005 movie "Mad Hot Ballroom" and works with Dancing Classrooms in New York City.
"There are barriers to touch and emotion," he said in an interview. "We break those barriers, learn to interact with each other socially. We push past the apprehension to see each other as human beings."
"Gentlemen," as Lopez assiduously referred to the boys, wore dark pants and button-down shirts Sunday; "ladies" wore dresses.
Six couples at a time took the floor to compete. Lopez called for "racetrack" position, referring to the oval made by two dancers' arms when they are linked; two professional judges began circling, scrutinizing posture, rhythm and execution.
There was hand-holding, and girls and boys moving together in concert in time; if there were nerves, they were not visible to an unpracticed eye.
Before the winners were announced, Javonte's partner, Emily McDonnell, 10, and also in the fifth grade, said they had been dancing together since December and had gotten over the hand-holding thing fast. "You're with someone you always see five days a week," she said.
As a soccer and lacrosse player, she could already see that dancing would come in handy: "When somebody's guarding you, you can use a box step to get around them," she said, and gave a quick demonstration.
"Or when we're older, if you go to prom," Javonte said.
From Sts. Philip and James School, fourth-graders Grace Cazzaniga and Liam Willman, both 9, danced the fox-trot.
Liam was a man of few words, beyond admitting that he counted steps in his head and he would keep on dancing.
Grace was a woman of many words. Her mouth was dry in the beginning; she loves weddings and will dance at the next one she attends; she will keep her gold medal in her room.
"I'm surprised, but I hoped we would win it," Grace said. "It's like one of those hopes that's a dream, but this time it's true."