On a recent Monday morning, as most fifth graders were studying math and English, a group of 10- and 11-year-olds at Knox Elementary School in South L.A. were learning something else: how to train and work toward goals, expression through movement, and the fundamentals of teamwork via the art of dance. Knox Elementary is one of more than 20 LAUSD campuses participating in Conga Kids, an arts-based educational nonprofit organization teaching dance styles including merengue, tango, swing and salsa. Conga Kids serves seven school districts in Los Angeles County and more than 5,000 students, a number they expect to double next year.

Conga Kids came to fruition in 2016 via Brad Gluckstein, founder of L.A.’s legendary Latin music venue the Conga Room. As the club marks its 20th anniversary this year, it continues to transcend the boundaries of a Latin nightclub. “The Conga Room has stakeholders such as Jennifer Lopez, Sheila E., Will.i.am and Jimmy Smits,” Gluckstein says. “We know the Latin space and do great on that scene, but over the years we’ve also had Prince play there three times, as well as Avicii, Lenny Kravitz, Justin Beiber and a lot of hip-hop artists. Recently, we even had punk band Rise Against play, and it was the first time in history there was a mosh pit at the Conga Room.”

Gluckstein says the Conga Kids program, now in its second year, was conceived via his work at the club, which has hosted numerous charity events over the years. He realized the positive effects nonprofits can have in the community but felt they could do better. “We saw so many wonderful nonprofits, particularly dance- and music-oriented ones, but none of them were affecting youth in a vast way,” he explains. “This year Conga Kids is affecting almost 6,000 kids, mostly in underserved communities in L.A. County like Pomona, Lynwood, Compton, El Monte and LAUSD, which includes everywhere from the Westside, East L.A. and South L.A., where we serve 800 to 1,000 kids alone.”

Conga Kids with, from left in back, program coordinator Devin Holliman, founder Brad Gluckstein and artistic director Daniel Ponickly; Credit: Alex Distefano

Conga Kids with, from left in back, program coordinator Devin Holliman, founder Brad Gluckstein and artistic director Daniel Ponickly; Credit: Alex Distefano

The Conga Kids dance curriculum offers a 10-week intensive program to mostly fifth graders, with some sixth-grade students as well. The material not only includes vigorous choreographed dance and rehearsals but also lessons about music, rhythm, language, cultural history, dance rituals and even geography. It is all incorporated into the curriculum, and all students participate. Gluckstein said this is one of the pillars of the program. “Right now at Knox Elementary in South L.A., there are three classes of fifth graders, and over 100 students participate,” he says. “This creates a spirit of enthusiasm, collaboration and teamwork that would not be there if only half the grade or a portion of students were involved.”

All students get to practice the tango, swing, salsa, merengue and foxtrot, including students with special needs, and Gluckstein says that many schools encourage and support parent involvement and participation from school staff.

“Many of our school populations merge special needs and neuro-typical students together because they don’t have the infrastructure or budget,” Gluckstein says. “We find that it provides self-esteem for the special needs population and a level of respect for all students, and it brings the community together.”

As this year’s 10-week program of two sessions per week comes to a close, the culmination is a final dance contest on Wednesday, May 23, featuring 12 teams of 170 students from all campuses involved. The event will be free to the public at Microsoft Square at L.A. Live downtown.

As the students at Knox kept things in motion for most of the morning, things were looking as tight as they could be, with rehearsals for the semi-final that night. Gluckstein says the program goes way beyond just teaching students to dance. It helps kids fight obesity and learn conflict resolution, too.

Expression through dance; Credit: Courtesy Conga Kids

Expression through dance; Credit: Courtesy Conga Kids

Noting that the organization is teaming up on a research project with UCLA focused on respect, Gluckstein says that schools where Conga Kids is part of the curriculum have seen lower rates of student referrals to the principal. “We focus on restorative justice, not punitive justice, and put an emphasis on the social and emotional well-being of all students,” he says. “After 10 weeks working with each other, students work better together and respect each other, and those are the transformative qualities. So yeah, they know how to dance, but we consider that secondary.”

All students at Knox had smiles on their faces and seemed enthusiastic and genuinely excited about being a part of the dance program and getting a chance to qualify for the event on Wednesday. “My favorite part of this is that we get to dance and express ourselves,” says Knox Elementary fifth grader Carina Sanchez. “I like the different dances we learned. It’s all very fun.”

Knox Elementary fifth grader Aaron Ortega concurs. “My favorite part is the way the rhythm goes with the dance,” he enthuses. “And the way the performers have to bring the dance to life.”

Conga Kids' spring final dance competition takes place today at 5 p.m. at Microsoft Square at L.A. Live, 741-775 Chick Hearn Court, downtown; free.

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