A viral video recently skyrocketed a D.C. dance team into social media fame, winning them the kind of attention any performer would envy: 16 million views on Facebook, hundreds of comments, thousands of new fans. The group specializes in Latin dance, and they can do it all—salsa, merengue, bachata, mambo, chacha. They’re also five years old.
This legion of pint-sized dancers belongs to Edwin Sorto’s kindergarten class at KIPP DC Promise Academy, a predominantly black charter school in Southeast Washington, D.C. Groups of 25 to 30 kids meet with Sorto for his afternoon Specials classes, where he leads art, PE and cultural activities. He’s woven Spanish language and Latin dance lessons into his curriculum, and the students have nimbly mastered every challenge.
“I tell them, ‘Alright guys, we work hard and play hard,’ ” Mr. Sorto said. “That gets their mindset in place for the dancing and it starts building up their confidence right from there.”
Sorto has been working at KIPP Promise Academy for the last three years. In search of something more fulfilling, he left a construction management career and turned to a program called the Capital Teaching Residency, which trains new educators in the D.C. area. The initiative paired Sorto up with a more experienced teacher at KIPP DC Promise Academy for one year, and then allowed him to brainstorm his own lesson plans.
She was standing in a corner when a five-year-old approached her with a tiny outstretched hand and asked her if she’d like to merengue.
His style in the classroom reflects his personality. Sorto came to the United States from El Salvador when he was 14. He grew up in a family that would spend holidays dancing until sun up, and he started breakdancing when he was a kid. About six years ago, he joined an Afro-Cuban salsa team called DC Casineros. Now, he performs with Cazike, a Latin dance company directed by his wife, Irene Holtzman, who worked at KIPP herself for 10 years. Both of them also teach dance to adults at Takoma Park’s ClaveKazi Dance Studio, where Holtzman is a co-director. They have noticed that the KIPP kindergartners often absorb steps more deftly than grown-ups.
“Kids are naturals,” Sorto said. “Like, let’s talk about shoulder shimmies. I’d say that’s one of the hardest things for adults. I know people who have been dancing for years who can’t shimmy that well. But the kids aren’t self-conscious. They pick it up like sponges.”
Sorto alternates activities in his class: physical education on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Spanish on Wednesdays, art on Fridays. Monday is dedicated solely to dance. When he begins teaching new routines, he starts the 45-minute sessions by playing three songs and asking the kindergartners which they like best. The students have responded to everything from Tito Puente to Toño Rosario, and once they make their decision, they get moving.
“I let them hear the song, we talk about the instruments and the rhythm, and then I have them clap to it. If they can interpret it with their hands, they’ll be able to interpret it with their feet,” he explains.
Sorto and Holtzman started uploading videos of the kids onto a Facebook page called Mr. Sorto’s Class. The snippets show the diminutive dancers perfecting partner work and learning Michael Jackson routines. Some of the children have even reached itty-bitty-celebrity status: a recent video features a five-year-old named Skylar dominating a salsa routine. (Many people have asked if her yellow shirt is meant to designate her as the lead dancer; Sorto and Holtzman explain that she’s a free spirit who simply doesn’t seem to like wearing the green class color.)
In addition to being an arsenal of cuteness, the Facebook page is also a place for fans to help the kids directly. There is a link to a fundraising effort to buy dance shoes and eventually purchase a dance mirror for the class.
Sorto is dreaming up new ways to keep the kids (literally) on their toes.
Comments online usually praise the kids’ dizzying footwork, but occasionally, negative remarks sneak their way into posts. Holtzman has read things like, “Yeah, they can dance, but can they read?” She points out that KIPP Promise Academy is one of the highest-performing charter elementary schools in the D.C. area, according to the Public Charter School Board’s ranking system. On the 2016 PARCC assessment, 74 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in mathematics, and the school ranked 13th in Washington for English language arts. Sorto says that breaking up the day with dance puts the children in high spirits and helps them tackle tough academics with renewed energy.
The kindergartners are also developing self-esteem and social skills that are hard to learn elsewhere. Last year, Holtzman stopped by the school to watch the kids rehearse for their annual Cultural Night event. She was standing in a corner when a five-year-old approached her with a tiny outstretched hand and asked her if she’d like to merengue.
“Not only did he ask me to dance in a way that’s much more sophisticated than lots of adults, but when we were done, he thanked me and lead me by the hand to where I had been standing,” she remembers. “There are these elements of interacting with people of another gender, of politeness, of self-confidence, of etiquette. It’s amazing to watch five-year-olds develop that ease in a world that can sometimes work against civility.”
Sorto is dreaming up new ways to keep the kids (literally) on their toes. He’s preparing them for a performance at Capital Congress, a salsa festival in D.C. that attracts people from all over the world. He’s also drawing inspiration from other countries and recently got in touch with Aron Norbert, an Afrohouse dancer in Amsterdam, about borrowing choreography to teach the students.
“For me, it’s very important for them to see something outside of where they live—I like to expose them to new things that they might normally not see or know about,” Sorto said. “I bring in Latin culture, and at the same time, I’m also learning from them and their culture.”