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Arts
January 9, 2024

Let’s Dance!

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For Edwin Sorto, a good education involves four Rs, not just the traditional three (reading, writing and arithmetic). In addition to the long-acknowledged need for a grounding in the basics, he advocates for rhythm—the foot-moving kind.

Sorto’s Latin-flavored dance lessons at the KIPP Promise Academy in southeast Washington, D.C., have won a large audience on social media. His Mr. Sorto’s Class page on Facebook has 176,000 followers. One recent TikTok posting was viewed more than 415,000 times, while a Black History Month presentation rehearsal clocked 267,000 views.

“I feel like people see dance as just a way of movement, but you’ve got to look at dance a little deeper than that,” he tells WayMaker Journal. It helps develop social skills, confidence, self-respect and curiosity, he believes. “You have all these skills kids are learning behind what we are portraying on social media: ‘Oh, it’s just kids dancing.’ Actually, you’re missing the point. They’re getting to know each other. They’re gathering, they’re working as a team.”

Sorto didn’t set out to create a buzz. He joined the school as a kindergarten teacher for Spanish, physical education, dance and art, almost a decade ago but over time the dance took precedence. Today he leads classes for kindergarten through fourth grade, as well as an afterschool program that involves older students.

He felt it was important to offer something beyond reading, writing and math. “And you’ve got sports all the time, [but] we are really slacking on the arts part, whether that is singing, that is acting, that is dancing, especially for our Black and brown kids.” His classes teach a range of Latin dance—bachata, mambo, cha cha cha, merengue. If the students want to learn other styles, he will bring in other teachers who specialize in those styles “so the kids can get the best of it.”

“FROM THE MOMENT THAT THEY STEP FOOT IN MY ROOM, THEIR LIFE’S ALREADY IMPACTED.”

‘Stay humble’

While the lessons are fun, they are not frivolous; the students are expected to
work hard. “It’s not a day care,” says Sorto. “It is a program for students who want to be in it and who want to put in the work, which is very different.”

He sees a ripple effect in those who take part. “I think from the moment that they step foot in my room, their life’s already impacted,” he says. “They tell their family that they’re part of something… they feel already proud just by being there.” Then there’s a domino effect: the parents get to talk to their friends, who talk to their friends “and the word starts spreading out about the work that the kids are doing.”

Sorto describes some of the ways the dance lessons help students grow. “They are very young, mature little human beings,” he says. “Not only have they been able to advocate for themselves at home and at school but you can tell the difference between the dancers that I have and the kids who don’t dance with the way they talk to each other, the way they communicate with each other, the way they respect each other. Their standards are so high for the age that they are.”

Though his students perform at events, he’s not into competition. “For me, competitions are more of an ego thing,” he explains. “The students that I have are great dancers, great performers, great social dancers; if I wanted to take them to a competition, I’m pretty sure they would clean the house,” he says.

But he wants to keep them humble: “When you have humility, it takes you further places. When you get stuck in your head—you know that you are this, that you’re that… I tell my kids, ‘Look, hard work beats talent. No matter how talented you are, hard work is gonna beat you.’ So I keep my kids hungry to get better in my classes. I think their competition is themselves.”

Maybe there’s a time and a place for competing one day, he goes on, “but as of right now, the way they are coming up as dancers, social dancers and human beings, for me, they’re at the top.”

‘Keep believing’

Sorto hopes the popularity of the dance class videos can help change some public perceptions by “making our kids get seen,” he says. The KIPP students are from the southeast part of the city, he says. “People are scared to go there, but guess what? This is where the most talented kiddos are and we need to make sure that we’re showcasing them.”

Dance has been a part of Sorto’s life since he was a kid growing up in El Salvador. “It’s a way to connect with a lot of people,” he says. Coming to the United States, dance provided a way for him to explore the new culture and meet new people. “Now I feel like it is my turn to share what I experience in my personal life or throughout my life with my kiddos and let them know that through dance you can meet or get to know so much more . . . at the end of the day, dance is a universal language.”

Sorto’s students took one of their dance lessons about self-confidence and offered it back to their teacher when he decided during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown to take the time to apply for American citizenship. One of his co-workers arranged for the dance students to record messages of encouragement as he prepared for the 100-question test.

Among them was a young boy who told him: “OK, Mr. Soto, I know you have a test next week, and I need you to believe in yourself. You need confidence. Act like it’s dancing. Believe in yourself. Don’t forget that one word. Believe in yourself.”

“AT THE END OF THE DAY, DANCE IS A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE.”

He “spoke to me the way I speak to them when it’s time for them to take a test at school,” Sorto recalls. His students were more confident he’d pass than he was. “They were like, ‘We told you you were going to pass it!’ It was a good experience, but also it just shows the impact that you can have on kids.”

EDWIN SORTO: MY WAYMAKERS

I’m going to start with my family. My mom, [even as] the kind of kid that I was back in those days, she never gave up on me. Then there were a few teachers that really pushed me throughout high school. My wife has always supported me, pushing me to be better. I also feel like I have a good group of people around me that I can count on.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.