School has just ended but for the members of the Thornton High School Focus Dance Crew, summer signals no break in their rigorous physical regimen.

Thornton High School's Focus Dance Crew

Instead of squeezing in six to eight hours of practice three afternoons a week after classes end, they’ll just start earlier in the day.

“We’ll start going to different dance conventions, not just taking dance classes with me, but seeing different styles of dance and learning other people’s techniques,” said Renesha Berry, a professional choreographer and Thornton mom who has been coaching the hip-hop dance club for three years.

Focus has been making quite a name for itself of late. The 25-member dance team – which started with performances at school pep rallies – entered its first competition last fall. They placed 18th, if Berry remembers correctly.

“That wasn’t bad, because there were a lot of groups competing,” she said. “But we’re hoping to place a lot higher this year. Our team was used to just performing at football games and pep rallies. But when you go to a state competition, there are a lot of rules.”

Taking hip-hop to a wider audience

Beyond school pep rallies and dance competitions, Focus has begun taking hip-hop to a wider audience.

Since January, the team has performed at the Legacy Foundation luncheon, at Adams City Middle School, in the Cinco de Mayo parade and in a hip-hop showcase. They’ll also be doing a performance for a fitness kick-off event for children, and they’ve been asked onto a local radio show.

“We’ve been getting a lot of offers,” said Berry.

Focus members are spreading the word to folks who don’t normally pay much attention to hip-hop that all that rhythmic jumping and spinning and break-dancing has benefits that go way beyond simply keeping these kids fit.

Focus Dance Crew members, from left, Dakota Christiansen, Enock Kadima, Charlie Hyuhn and Joseph Rivera perform at a Thornton High School pep rally. Photos courtesy of Focus Dance Crew.

“It’s kept me motivated to say in school,” said Charlie Hyunh, 18, the co-captain of the team. “I’ve always wanted to dance, but I never had money for classes. In Focus, we’ve done so many things this year that we never dreamed we would get to do. We’ve had some awesome opportunities.”

Hyunh will enroll in the University of Colorado at Boulder in fall, where he’ll study biology and psychology, in hopes of going to medical school and one day becoming a pediatrician. But Berry has also offered him a part-time job as her coaching assistant.

For 15-year-old Aliahna Sena, being part of the dance team seemed the natural thing to do.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve been in dance,” she said. “My dad came here to this school, and he danced. And my grandmother has a dance studio. Dancing takes my stress away, and takes me to another place.”

Heavy physical demands on teen dancers

For Enock Kadima, 15, who moved here from the Congo in 2010, dancing gave him a way to make new friends.

The Focus Dance Crew will practice all summer. At the center of the photo, in a black jacket, is their choreographer, Renesha Berry, a Thornton mom and a professional dancer.

“Dancing is my life now,” he said, though he confesses his favorite activity is actually soccer. “Dancing has changed everything for me. It makes me focus more in school, and keeps me out of trouble.”

Berry encourages her students to embrace dancing – and all it demands – with passion. When Focus was just an after-school dance club, anyone could join. Now that the group is a competitive team, student have to try out for spot. But she’ll let others who aren’t on the team sometimes come and practice with them, so they can get a taste for what dancing is like.

What it’s like is very physical. Berry requires the students to do vigorous warmups, including jumping jacks, crunches, stretches and splits. They also run laps.

“It definitely helps the kids with weight problems to stay in shape,” she said.

During the school year, Focus meets for two hours, three days a week – and daily if they’re preparing for a competition.

“Dancers don’t get a lot of credit,” she said. “We work just as hard as the football players, and I don’t know many football players who could take a dance class and survive until the end. I also don’t know of any hip-hop classes offered in community centers either. That’s too bad, because that would open a lot of doors for a lot of the students.”

Media making dance more popular

Dance teams are popular in Colorado high schools, and larger schools often offer dance units built into PE classes so students can earn PE or fine arts credits, said Nhu Nguyen, associate professor in the Department of Human Performance and Sport at Metro State College and head of the dance division of the Colorado Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

“Dance becomes increasingly popular in high school and college, as students’ social status is often measured at social events where music and dance is highly prevalent,” Nguyen said. “Unfortunately, personal awareness also takes over and if one did not already learn body awareness and develop rhythm, it can stunt the social opportunities as one ages.”

Urban, hip-hop and break-dancing are the most popular forms of dance with teen-agers, Nguyen said, but country line, swing and Latin dances also have their niche. Television shows such as Dancing with the Stars and Shake It Up – as well as Wii and Xbox dancing routines – have all contributed to a surge in popularity, she said.

Still, dancing instruction remains outside the experience of most American students. According to a 2010 survey by the National Dance Association, fewer than half – 43 percent – get any sort of dance training in school and most of that comes from PE teachers, coaches or volunteer parents. Only about 7 percent learn from dance specialists on staff at their schools.