Life Change Ballroom
Dancers agree that the Life Change Ballroom has an accurate name. A more elaborate description might include: ballroom dancing lessons for inner city kids who grew up on hip-hop, but now love the cha-cha so much that they practice for five hours every Saturday—positively affecting their self-esteem, improving their athleticism and ultimately redirecting their lives.
“This is a mentorship disguised as ballroom lessons,” said founder Cindy Pipkin. “We teach dance, but the students ultimately learn about relationships. For boys, they learn how to respectfully take care of their female dance partners.”
Pipkin started this program in 2006—and she’d never even danced before. “I had no experience with dancing, children, schools or non-profits,” Pipkin said. “I saw a documentary about a similar in-school ballroom program in New York, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. That’s how I knew this was a calling.” She analyzed popular ballroom dance shows and realized that ballroom skills were an avenue to teach children leadership, health and many other life skills.
Pipkin called a meeting with her friends and family to share her plan: raise funds to hire dance teachers for art and physical education classes or after-school programs for the Oklahoma City Public Schools. Now, eight years later, while Pipkin still finds herself challenged to “walk and chew gum,” her dancers are so advanced that they are hired to perform by non-profits and local celebrities.
Initially, the in-school ballroom dancing was for fifth graders, but it now extends to about a thousand kids of all ages and includes Putnam City and Oklahoma City school districts. Students who show promise in the schools are invited into the Youth Empowerment Leadership Program (YELP), which meets every Saturday.
Seventh-grader Katalina Phomsouvanh was introduced to dancing through her school in the fifth grade. At first, she was skeptical. “I had to take this dance class at my school, and I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t want to do this,’ but I learned the basic steps. Then I danced the cha-cha for an audition, and I was invited to join the Saturday group,” Phomsouvanh said.
This select dance troop spends five hours each Saturday practicing 32 different dances taught by Tami Bramel. They perform all over the city at art festivals, fundraisers and private parties. Pipkin voluntarily runs the organizational and fundraising side of things, while Bramel is the lead YELP teacher.
According to Katalina’s mother, Chanthorn Dy, her daughter looks so forward to YELP that she jumps out of bed at 8:00am every Saturday and hasn’t missed a practice in two years. “It has changed her life.” Phomsouvanh described her Saturday like this: “When I first go in, they’re playing music like O Happy Day, and everyone greets you with hugs and says, ‘Hey, Katalina!’ That’s how it feels to enter that door and dance.”
“If it wasn’t for this program, I might have done bad things I shouldn’t be doing,” Phomsouvanh continued. “It’s crazy how many hard things I go through, but at ballroom, all my worries are gone. When I’m dancing, I’m in another world. It’s just me and dancing—that’s how I express myself.”
Another student who has benefited from the program is Santana Randle, a ninth-grader who was introduced to Life Change Ballroom four years ago. “I’m from a school that only knows hip hop. Ballroom was a hard transition for me, because I like the free-spirited dance. But I got it down now—all the steps. I can get serious with the tango and have a big ol’ smile on my face during the cha-cha.”
His ballroom skills have translated onto the athletic field. “In football, I’ve learned to have hip motion, and fancy footwork has helped me on the basketball court,” Randle said. “It’s also taught me to be well tempered, because you can’t get mad when you’re performing if you don’t get a step right, so I’ve learned to control my temper at school, too.” Pipkin said that keeping boys involved in the program has been a non-issue. In some cases, she’s had boys quit sports because it interfered with Saturday dancing.
For Randle, the YELP program has provided him an extended family and male role models. According to his mother, Pat Allen, it has shaped him into a quality young man. “He’s become a good follower and a great leader. More than just dance, he’s learned about etiquette, human relationships, religion, speaking skills and how to be considerate of others.”
“It’s a big family atmosphere, coupled with dancing,” said Randle. “I’m speaking for all of us when I say that Miss Cindy and Miss Tami have prepared us for life. They’ve led me in the right direction, and now I’ve stepped into a leadership role to mentor some of the younger guys.”
Allen attributes her son’s growth to Life Change Ballroom. “Those are some great women, there! They show kids how to reach down and pull the next person up. I truly believe there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for Santana, and I would do anything for them if they asked.”
“When Katalina performs, it’s amazing,” said Dy. “She’s like a whole different person. It makes me want to cry. This has changed her life.”
Pipkin said that she and Bramel are frequently asked why they would voluntarily give up every Saturday. “We just smile at each other, because there’s nowhere else we’d rather be. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing—you couldn’t be happier.”
Life Change Ballroom is supported by donations. Learn more at www.lifechangeballroom.com.