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FLORENCE – Florence students learned how to East Coast Swing over the last couple of weeks. And along the way, they discovered something about tolerance, empathy and kindness.

Dance can teach people a lot of different things, said Heather Adams of Missoula’s Downtown Class Collective.

Adams spent five days teaching dance classes to 7th through 12th grades at Florence-Carlton schools.

“I focused on teaching them the East Coast Swing dance,” Adams said. “It’s a really nice general swing step that they can use to dance to classic rock, big band, country and top 40 styles of music. I want them to feel like they can dance to any style of music.”

Before Adams came through the door, many of the young people had already decided they had two left feet when it came to the dance floor.

“A lot of them are kind of apprehensive when we first get started,” she said. “A lot of them already believed that they couldn’t dance. They may have tried it once and it didn’t go well. And there are a lot of nerves involved.

“Once we get started, they see that it’s safe and inclusive,” Adams said.

Adam’s core mission goes far beyond teaching the students how to make each other swing.

“I’m actually teaching tolerance, commitment, empathy, teamwork and kindness,” she said.

They learn patience, tolerance and empathy when they dance with a partner who might be struggling a little bit.

“They have to be able to say that they know this is really hard, but I’m here to help you,” Adams said. “They learn to be kind to each other as they work together to learn the steps. And it takes teamwork to make that happen.”

And some also have to learn how to keep their physicality in check.

“Some kids can be pretty physical,” she said. “They have to learn how to be able to hold on someone’s hand without ripping their arm off.”

Before each dance, Adams’ students introduce themselves and then shake hands and say thank you afterwards.

“I talk about the proper way to shake someone’s hand,” she said. “You want to be able to express gratitude in a way that’s genuine. What you don’t want to do is crush someone else’s hand in yours.”

Florence-Carlton Physical Education teacher Ed Combo has been impressed with the way the students have responded.

“One of my seniors asked me earlier this year if we could have a dance unit,” Combo said. “Heather has been here before, but it was only one day. We thought we would try a week.”

Combo said it’s been remarkable to watch the student’s response.

“They are way more comfortable with each other now,” he said. “A lot of them have really come out of their shell and comfort zone.”

Combo was also impressed with Adams’ instruction that included introductions, shaking hands and saying “thank you.”

“Some of the kids had not learned or been exposed to that before,” Combo said.

On Friday, Adams planned to teach the juniors and seniors how to do the Charleston.

“That’s the theme of this year’s prom,” Combo said. “I think they are planning to hold a Charleston contest at the prom this year. That should be a lot of fun.”

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Northwest Montana Reporter

Northwest Montana reporter at the Missoulian