Heads up, shoulders forward, some of the dancers laughed as they zombie-walked toward the audience to Michael Jackson's “Thriller.”
A man dressed in a wizard costume had just fixed the audio, ending an uncomfortable silence that had left the young performers standing in a quiet dance hall.
The Life Change Ballroom Dancers were in the midst of an exhibition for the Ballroom Dance Club of OKC's Halloween Party. They tore through a tango before gliding to the music of Frank Sinatra and Adele. They were focused and rehearsed, and even though they'd done it many times before, no one was bored.
Sharon Hoover, president of the Ballroom Dance Club, said they enjoy Life Change performances because club members get to see some very talented kids, and the young dancers get applauded for their hard work.
“We have them here as often as we can get them,” she said.
Life Change's Youth Empowerment and Leadership Program offers scholarships to 21 teens and preteens. The students come from neighborhoods with gang activity and other societal problems.
“It's a leadership program in disguise,” said Celeste Cotton, a sophomore at Casady High School. “We're all really close here, and we're a family.”
The students first encountered dancing in the fifth grade when a separate Life Change program brought instructors to their elementary schools.
That's how they learned basics such as the fox-trot, salsa, meringue, rumba, tango, cha-cha and swing. Teachers identified a few who seemed especially interested, and those students were considered for the leadership program, Director Cindy Pipkin said.
The dancers range from sixth-graders to high school juniors.
From the first practice it's a sink-or-swim environment. Every Saturday during the school year they meet for five hours to rehearse at Britton Christian Church. When the school year is done, they will be there three days a week. Many also come to tutoring on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“All these little life lessons are in dance,” Pipkin said.
“They just learn these social skills that are going to serve them for the rest of their lives.”
D'angelo Eason, a junior at Centennial High School, joined the crew six years ago when YELP was just getting started. He couldn't dance at this year's Halloween party because of an injury, but he showed up to cheer on his friends.
He's thinking about studying dance at the University of Oklahoma in a couple of years. He said the Life Change program has helped him stay positive.
“If I wasn't in here, I'd probably be on the street in gangs and things,” he said.
Life Change offers a “drama-free” environment where friends who have known each other for years can share their worries and lift each other up, Celeste said.
“We've been able to talk about what's going on at home, and we're able to pray for each other,” she said.
Dancing is the most overtly visible part of Life Change, but they also take etiquette lessons, attend plays and go to restaurants. About once a month, they perform for groups such as the Ballroom Dance Club.
Chyanne Wood, an eighth-grader at Belle Isle Middle School, said she has learned valuable social skills, such as how to keep proper manners but still enjoy a formal dinner.
One of her favorite things is teaching dancing and other skills to new members and elementary students when they visit schools.
“There are new people every year,” she said. “It's a wonderful experience to help little ones.”
Keyveontae' Martin, a sixth-grader at KIPP Academy, was a student at Britton Elementary when he saw the dancers give a performance.
“I saw leadership in some of them,” he said, “and I saw it showing you how to become a gentleman that knows how to treat a lady.”
He said he likes the mathematical side of dancing, keeping rhythm and counting steps.
Pipkin had no experience with kids or schools and essentially none with dancing when she saw “Mad Hot Ballroom,” a documentary about an inner-city dance program in New York City, and first considered starting Life Change.
“I just watched that documentary like 15 times,” she said. “I was just going in blind and by faith.”
The program still faces challenges with space, and fundraising is always a concern, but with a few years of dancing gone by, she said the reward is seeing young people grow on the dance floor and in life.