Middle school kids get professional dance lessons, thanks to special arts funding

Dance class at Hamilton Middle School in Denver

Dance class at Hamilton Middle School in Denver

DENVER — Professional dance lessons are usually expensive, but students at one Denver public school are getting them for free and they’re getting school credit at the same time.

A very dedicated teacher is behind the unique program, but it wouldn’t be possible without Denver voters.

When a 2012 DPS mill levy was approved at the polls, it dedicated $6 million to arts funding and soon Hamilton Middle School began building its first elective dance program.

Joseph DeMers, a professional dancer and instructor who owns a studio in Littleton, teaches a full schedule of classes at the school, focusing on many styles including ballet, modern dance and hip hop.

“We are a hip-hop culture,” DeMers said. “These kids, they walk in and they’re like, ‘Mr. DeMers, we want to ‘Dougie’, we want to do the ‘cat-daddy’, Mr. DeMers we want to ‘twerk’.’ ‘No, we can’t ‘twerk’ guys. That’s not allowed in dance class.'”

DeMers says he’s thrilled to combine his love for dance with his love for teaching. Prior to the start of the dance program, he was a science teacher for five years at Hamilton.

“Actually, I never shared with students that I was a dancer,” DeMers said. “I always felt that they would get distracted if they knew I was a dancer.”

When the voters passed the mill levy in 2012, DeMers says he was excited to apply for the dance teacher position, even though it caught his principal by surprise.

“(The principal) said, ‘Mr. DeMers, you teach science. What do you mean you want to teach dance?’ I was like, ‘You don’t understand. I’m a professional dancer,” DeMers said. “Science is my career, but dance is my life.'”

The dance classes have been growing in popularity among students with the help of some flash mob videos and frequent recitals at the school.

“I think we’re really lucky to have this dance teacher especially and this program,” said Estefany Rodriguez, a 7th grade dance student.

“My friends, they used to never dance, but when they tried this dance class they said it was really cool,” said 7th grader Ayak Ater,

In addition to making dance cool, DeMers says he’s seeing how dance has helped some students find a new path.

“I see some of the most struggling students, academically, excel in dance,” DeMers said.

More than 440 students have already taken the dance courses at Hamilton. In a classroom poll, 95 percent of students said they would have normally never taken a dance class.