By EMMALEE C. TORISK
Spanish teacher Nancy Mathaney says the textbook can go only so far in helping students learn a foreign language.
To really get a feel for it, Mathaney insists, students need to step outside their comfort zone and immerse themselves in the culture of whatever language they’re attempting to learn.
Fourteen Spanish classes at Struthers High School, including freshmen to seniors, did just that Thursday. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., students paired with their classmates in the field house and learned steps to the salsa and the merengue, courtesy of Bob McPhail and Davine George, a husband-and-wife dance team from Youngstown’s Ballroom With Style dance studio.
“I wanted to show every aspect” of the culture, said Mathaney, explaining why about eight years ago, she chose to incorporate dancing into her classroom and into Spanish Week — a school tradition of almost a decade. “I love to dance, ... but I didn’t know how students would respond.”
As it turned out, the self-taught Mathaney had nothing to worry about, save for a few bashful freshmen. Her teaching students steps to the rhumba, the mambo and the tango, among other dances, was a resounding success.
Even Carly Giancola, the high school’s other Spanish teacher, remembered dancing during her high-school Spanish classes and participating in Spanish Week, which began Monday and will conclude today, while a student at SHS.
Other activities are included in this year’s Spanish Week, such as Mathaney’s student-teacher, Youngstown State University senior Katie Henkins, serenading students with Spanish songs played on the guitar.
“Everyone couldn’t wait for Spanish dance day,” said Giancola, a 2008 Struthers graduate.
And as her fourth-period Spanish I class of about 20 students attempted a few salsa basics, Giancola added that dance, whether it’s during class or Spanish Week, “makes the culture real for them.”
That’s why, once a month, Giancola’s classes participate in “Dance Friday,” during which she teaches her students the steps to dances she learned while studying abroad in Costa Rica. One of her favorites is the bachata, which she described as slow, romantic and cute.
Freshman Mailene Lopez, a student of Giancola’s, said the bachata is a favorite of hers, too. It’s a dance the 16-year-old learned at home from her Hispanic parents. Lopez said her having picked up on similar, though less formal, dances at a young age gave her a slight advantage over some of her classmates, but that she helped them out — especially a few of the boys.
“It takes patience,” she said. “It’s a very fun thing when you get into it.”
Sophomore Brad Galloway, 17, and freshman Jenna Farkas, 14, agreed that figuring out the moves to the salsa was fun. By the end of the period, the two were even adding fancy arm movements to the dance, which they and their classmates performed along to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
Galloway, who said his father had once rather awkwardly tried to teach him the salsa, said that being made to switch partners every so often helped keep him on his toes. Farkas added that she’d never attempted it, but that the experience was fun.
“The hardest part is making it flow together,” she said, of combining individual steps into a cohesive whole.
At the period’s end, instructors George and McPhail paused for a brief moment before their next group of students was set to come in, and listed a few of their goals.
“I want them to know that music and dancing is fun, and to have a basic understanding of dance,” George said.
“And maybe whet their appetite to do more,” added McPhail.