Maria Nava took a deep breath and looked at her partner one last time before stepping onto the dance floor.
“Remember,” she told him. “Slow down.”
“OK,” Eugene Figueroa said.
Moments later, the crowd roared as the two 10-year-olds from Estrella Elementary School joined about 170 other fifth-graders at L.A. Live for the Conga Kids Dance Championship.
The high-energy dance contest organized by the nonprofit Conga Kids takes place twice a year. Several thousand children across Los Angeles County learn to swing and salsa, tango, foxtrot and merengue over the course of a 10-week program. As they vie for a much smaller number of spots on the big stage, they pick up deeper, subtle lessons about confidence, discipline and teamwork.
“They really connect and learn to respect each other,” said Brad Gluckstein, the nonprofit’s president and chief executive.
Most of the kids at Estrella Elementary in South Park had never danced when they began training in February.
“My mom would always tell me, ‘Dance with me,’” said Saul Cortes, a 10-year-old with a tiny frame and gold streaks in his hair. “But I would say, ‘Honey, no, I don’t want to.’”
Those first weeks, Saul and his classmates had plenty to fear beyond failing to make the final — falling, sweating, holding hands with a girl, holding hands with a boy, staring into each other’s eyes.
“I thought dancing was lame,” said Daveion Smith, who used to think his time was better spent practicing for chess championships.
At Estrella, the bar had already been set high. Last year’s fifth-graders had taken first place, beating dozens of schools, including some in places with far more resources, like Beverly Hills.
“It was a lot of hard work, but we did it,” said Principal Gabriel Arreguin, proudly pointing to the shiny trophy on display in his office. “We’ll see how we do this year.”
A day before the championship, Estrella was buzzing with excitement. About 95 students — the entire fifth-grade class — had trained twice a week with a dance teacher, hoping to make the championship team.
The most determined had done so just about every day, in their living rooms and kitchens, with their moms and dads and siblings.
Estrella Elementary School students Eugene Figueroa, left, and Maria Nava practice dancing during their lunch break in Los Angeles on Monday, May 22, 2018.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Students Katelyn Olivares and Saul Cortes rehearse for the Conga Kids Dance Championship at Estrella Elementary School.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Students Saul Cortes, left, and Katelyn Olivares rehearse for the Conga Kids Dance Championship at Estrella Elementary School.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Estrella Elementary School students walk out of the Conga Room to compete in the 2018 Conga Kids Dance Championship held at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 23, 2018.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Estrella Elementary School students line up before competing in the 2018 Conga Kids Dance Championship.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Estrella Elementary School students Saul Cortes, center left, and Katelyn Olivares, center right, compete in the 2018 Conga Kids Dance Championship held at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 23, 2018.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Students compete in the 2018 Conga Kids Dance Championship on Wednesday, May 23, 2018.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Estrella Elementary School students Maria Nava and Eugene Figueroa, center, compete in the 2018 Conga Kids Dance Championship.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Estrella Elementary School students Daveion Smith and Juana Antonio, right, compete in the 2018 Conga Kids Dance Championship held at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Estrella Elementary School students Maria Nava and E’vette Davis, center, embrace after their team placed first in the 2018 Conga Kids Dance Championship at L.A. Live.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Estrella Elementary School student E’vette Davis walks away with her father Edmund Davis after her team placed first in the 2018 Conga Kids Dance Championship at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
The 14 who had made the final cut had turned lunch and recess into practice, too, borrowing a speaker from the principal.
”We had to let go of our bad thoughts and just focus,” said E’vette Davis.
At lunchtime, she and the rest of the team took to the playground, turned on the merengue and transformed, spinning and gyrating in unison.
“Shake it, Maria!” one classmate hollered from the sidelines.
Others looked on, swaying their hips and tapping their toes.
“They’re so elegant, so smooth,” said Camila Moreno, proud of her friend E’vette and partner, Levi Reyna, a duo known for their entrancing tango promenade.
The morning of the competition, the team members did what they could to calm jitters.
Jennifer Pec relaxed with piano music on her cellphone. Daveion ate Lucky Charms. E’vette told herself over and over: “You can do this. You were chosen for a reason.”
Levi followed his usual morning routine: “Splash my face with water and slap myself real hard.”
The Estrella team looked sharp as they filed into L.A. Live’s Microsoft Square. The boys’ clip-on yellow bow ties, most a little crooked, popped off their white button-down shirts. The girls wore faux pearls, and black dresses with yellow ribbons around their waists. Their hair had been swirled into high buns pinned down with giant silk peonies. They found themselves in a sea of competitors, all spruced up in tulle skirts, ruffled socks, shiny polyester vests and patent leather shoes.
Up high were city skyscrapers, flashing lights. The emcee worked up the crowd. Parents cheered with all they had: “Estrella! First Street! Hawthorne!”
The Hollywood sampler of judges roamed the floor with clipboards, looking for eye contact, timing, passion, style — something that might set one team apart.
“Cuteness,” said Tommy Chong.
“Crazy,” said his wife, Shelby. “I need something over-the-top.”
The two-hour show flew by as 12 teams took turns demonstrating 13 dances, each about three minutes long.
Raquel Cabrera, the calm and composed Conga Kids dance teacher who had trained Estrella, dispatched her crew onto the dance floor, two by two.
E’vette and Levi tangoed. Briana Sanchez and Carlos Morales shimmied to salsa.
When Maria and Eugene’s turn came to swing, they took their positions and then, as soon as they heard the first beat, they let go, twisting across the dance floor. Maria smiled big, swung her arms as far as she could and dug the balls of her feet emphatically into the floor, as if she were determined to squash a giant bug.
She returned to her team and plopped down breathless, her chubby cheeks flushed cherry red.
“I’m so nervous,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m going to let my whole team down.”
“No way,” Briana told her. “We’re doing great.”
Sometime later, the teams were called to the dance floor to hear the winners.
Estrella lined up, wiggly and anxious, Maria and Eugene up front.
The emcee teased, taking his time.
“And remember, after we announce our winners ...”
“Ugh!” Maria yelled.
“Just say it!” screamed someone else.
Finally, he did: “Ladies and gentlemen, are you kidding me? Repeat winners. Estrella Elementary!”
Maria and Eugene ran to collect the school’s trophy and brought it back to their team, now bouncing up and down in wild abandon.
Just then, Maria saw a familiar face in the crowd and fell into her mother’s arms, sobbing.