SHANNON - Demarco Long is a busy youngster. The Shannon Elementary School student enjoys all kinds of activities, especially sports.

But early in the 2020-21 academic year, the fifth-grader discovered another activity: dancing. He got in step when Benjamin Pryor, a local dance professional, began teaching lessons at the school.

"I've been dancing since October when we were doing 'Thriller' with Mr. Benjamin," said Long, referring to the Michael Jackson hit song.

Long's joy for dancing has grown this year. He also discovered how dance differs from another favorite interest.

"It's not as rough as football," he said.

Long was one of almost 50 students in grades 5-7 from Shannon and Plantersville schools who took part in a spring dance festival May 14 at Shannon Elementary to celebrate the end of their dance year. The students performed with dance professionals in a gymnasium decorated like a grand ballroom. Even the principals of the two schools hit the gym dance floor for special performances.

The dance classes and the festival are part of Dancing in the Schools, a project partnership between Dancing With The King and the two schools. Dancing and Singing With The King is an annual event in Tupelo that celebrates the legacy and music of Elvis Presley while raising money for dance and vocal education scholarships.

Dancing and Singing With The King, presented by the Tupelo Elvis Fan Club, is a special project of the CREATE Foundation.

Dancing In The Schools is funded by a Mississippi Arts Commission grant. It also receives funding and support from the Tupelo Elvis Fan Club, the Tupelo Ballroom Dance Club, the Elaine Dundy and Roy Turner Endowment for the Arts, the Tupelo Kiwanis Club and private donors.

Plantersville Middle School was first to adopt the innovative program that highlights the importance of arts education, and Shannon added it this year. Pryor and Gemi Moore of The Dance Studio in Tupelo served as instructors to the students.

The schools' principals, Plantersville's Lindsay Brett and Shannon's Pam Moran, have been celebrity dancers in Dancing With The King. They both have seen improvements in academic and social skills in the students involved in dance.

"This was our second year for us to participate," Brett said. "It's been really good for the kids. It's been a confidence booster for them."

Moran said dance is something the students can do throughout their lives.

"I danced when I was probably 3 years old," she said. "I did Dancing With The King. It was sort of out of my norm, but I enjoyed it."

During the spring festival, the students did group performances with their classmates. Shannon had two fifth-grade classes and Plantersville brought over three groups representing grades 5, 6 and 7.

The students then were randomly divided into four groups to work with a professional dancer. They learned a new routine that they would perform later as an individual group and then blend together for one huge group dance.

In between the practice sessions, the students enjoyed doing line dances and an "Uptown Funk" dance routine. The four dance pros - Pryor, Moore, Tammy Wilson and Andrew Davis - also presented ballroom dance demonstrations. There were special performances at the end by four Plantersville students who danced with Pryor or Moore, while Brett and Moran each performed with Pryor.

Victor Armstrong of the Tupelo Elvis Presley Fan Club and Caren Vitali of the Tupelo Ballroom Dance Club presented the students with trophies for their participation in the festival.

Serving as festival announcer was Claudia Hopkins, a retired educator who works in The Dance Studio office. While Hopkins was emceeing the event, Shannon Elementary fifth-grade teacher Lauren Golding recalled how Hopkins introduced her to arts in the classroom.

"Mrs. Hopkins was my fifth-grade teacher at Church Street Elementary School in Tupelo," Golding said. "She instilled that love of dancing and music, and bringing that into the classroom made learning fun and exciting. I do that as a fifth-grade teacher at Shannon Elementary. We do a lot of movement and singing and dancing."

Before becoming a dance professional, Pryor was a child psychology major at Jacksonville State University. He sees the benefits of children getting involved in the arts and enjoys working with them.

"Fifth-graders are my sweet spot," Pryor said minutes after his final festival dance. "That's probably why I enjoy working with them. But I also enjoy working with the sixth- and seventh-graders. They're all cool kids."

One of the Plantersville seventh-graders, Krislyn Walker, said dancing gives her a boost when she returns to her school work.

"I enjoy it because we all got to have fun together. My favorite dance is the cha-cha," she said. "Dancing clears my mind before I get back in the classroom. It's fun and energetic."

As for Long, being a part of the Shannon Elementary dance class was an enjoyable experience. Even though he's not ready to give up all of his athletic activities, he'd like to spend extra time in the future perfecting his new dance skills and learning more dances.

"I'd like to do two weeks dance and one week P.E.," he said. "P.E. is fun and dancing is fun. But, if I can do dance two weeks and P.E. one week, I would like that better."

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